The Odds of Staying out of Municipal Bankruptcy

November 13, 2015. Share on Twitter

Rolling the Die: What Are the Odds of Fiscal Recovery? In the wake of Gov. Christie’s conditional vetoes of the package of bills intended to help Atlantic City avoid the need to seek bankruptcy protection and the threat to essential public services, New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Gov. Chris Christie, in a joint statement after the veto, said they would meet soon to “construct a final and fast resolution” to Atlantic City’s economic and fiscal stress—even as the Governor is in a critical point in his quest for the GOP Presidential nomination. The conditionally vetoed key elements of a rescue package approved by the legislature would have allocated $33.5 million in redirected casino taxes to pay off Atlantic City’s municipal bonds—and now leave the beleaguered city facing layoffs by the end of the year as Mayor Guardian and the Council grapple with a continued credit crisis.

The conditional vetoes, however, appear to have stirred up a regional hornet’s nest, even as they put Atlantic City between a rock and a hard place. Atlantic City Councilman Timothy Mancuso said the city is counting on more than $33 million in PILOT funds to balance its 2015 budget, noting: “It’s down to the wire, and now everybody’s throwing in different plans…“We can’t have that.” Chris Filiciello, a spokesman for Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian, said Mayor Guardian “supports Governor Christie and Senate President leadership on this issue, and is looking forward to legislation being agreed upon and signed into law as soon as possible.” The problem, as one participant noted, is the critical time lost because of the Gov.’s very last minute veto—or as one party noted: “The past 12 months was the time to produce realistic alternative plans — now we need to focus on finishing the job of getting Atlantic City and Atlantic County back on the path to fiscal stability.” Atlantic County Assemblyman Chris Brown yesterday stated he would not vote for a sweeping plan to change the taxes paid by Atlantic City’s casinos, proposing instead an alternative which would increase the casinos’ annual tax bills by about $88 million in 2016 alone while keeping the city’s marketing and development agencies from being gutted. The new plan would, he hopes, replace the proposed legislation, a bill under which casinos would make a collective $120 million payment for 15 years, instead of traditional property-tax payments. The scurry to come up with alternative fiscal options come at the onset of what now could become a challenging state-local standoff, as well as a regional fiscal struggle. Gov. Christie’s conditional vetoes of the so-called PILOT package, even though they would maintain the payment in lieu of taxes or PILOT agreement’s structure, would give the state greater authority and control over the funds the agreement directs to Atlantic City. Thus the 24th hour conditional veto has triggered not only a state-local power struggle, but also a regional tussle.

Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson said he agreed that the Casino Redevelopment Authority needed one of the bills, which would have redirected some $25 million to $30 million in casino Investment Alternative Tax (IAT) collections to municipal debt payments, and that the casinos have to be assessed properly: “(The PILOT bill) just prevents the casinos from appealing their taxes for 15 years…It can be simplified. Assess the casinos fairly, correctly, properly.” That is to write that every local government in the region has a stake (bad pun) in the outcome—and the continuing delays in agreeing upon an outcome, because Atlantic City’s fiscal base relies on its casinos—not just for revenues, but also for employment: in addition to property taxes, Atlantic City’s eight casinos pay 9.25 percent in taxes on their gross gambling revenue. The 11th hour action by a Presidentially campaigning Governor now creates fear of risk that virtually all of the casino properties’ revenue streams, including revenue from food, beverage and entertainment operations, and jobs could be at risk. Assemblyman Brown reports that, in 2016 alone, the changes he is proposing would bring in about $11.8 million more receipts from his proposed 1.25 percent investment alternative tax, which funds the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA), while his other tax on casino revenue, an 8 percent levy used to help seniors and the disabled in New Jersey, would, he reports, see receipts increase by nearly $76 million. In comparison, the conditionally vetoed PILOT package would have eliminated the $30 million annual budget of the Atlantic City Alliance, the city’s main marketing arm, and virtually defunded the authority, which orchestrates large development projects in Atlantic City, instead using those dollars to pay down Atlantic City’s debt and expenses. Assemblyman Brown, however, asserts that under his proposed pan, increased receipts from casinos could keep the alliance and authority running with $8 million and $10 million in annual funding, respectively. The CRDA could also forward $5 million of its IAT funds to the city as part of a PILOT for properties it owns in the city, and the remainder of, which he estimates would be about $18 million next year, would go to Atlantic City: or, as he put it: “If we are serious about protecting the future of Atlantic County…we need to preserve CRDA to continue to reinvest in nongaming attractions…At the same time, we need to market Atlantic City to ensure our continued growth and success.” The Assemblyman’s plan also calls for deeper county involvement in property assessments and proposes permitting Atlantic County to participate in property tax appeals valued at $10 million or more.

Why Not Tax the Guy Behind the Tree? Steven Scheinthal, General Counsel for Golden Nugget owner Landry’s Inc., presciently reminds folks: “If anyone thinks that they’re going to tax the casinos more than they already are being taxed, then they live in la-la land…And I bet you there’s seven other casino operators that would feel the same way.” In Rome, where the expression was tempus fugit or time is flying, the long delay by Gov. Christie is now on the verge of fiscal consequences, after all: Atlantic City Business Administrator Arch Liston Tuesday, in an epistle, warned that Atlantic City employees in five departments could be facing layoffs by the end of the year: the letter, sent by and first obtained by pressofatlanticcity.com, went to Atlantic City employees who work in the revenue and finance, health and human services, planning and development, public works departments, and the municipal courts—warning that such layoffs would take effect on Dec. 28. While the Governor delayed months in acting, Atlantic City faces an $11 million debt service payment due in December. That is not a payment that can be put off.

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The Importance of Property Taxes in Municipal Bankrupcy Recovery

November 11, 2015. Share on Twitter

Does the Motor City Have to Change its Property Tax? Detroit has one of the broadest tax bases of any city in the U.S.: municipal income taxes constitute the city’s largest single source, contributing about 21 percent of total revenue in 2012, or $323.5 million, the last year in which the city realized a general fund surplus. Thereafter, receipts declined each year through 2010, reflecting both a rate reduction mandated by the state and the Great Recession. But the path to municipal bankruptcy also reflected not just the significant population decline, but also the make-up of the decline: the census reported that one-third of current residents are under the poverty line and that the composition of businesses—unlike any other major city in the nation—are primarily made up of public organizations. The reduction also reflected state mandates. Only Chrysler and DTE Energy pay business taxes. Detroit’s revenues had been declining year-over-year. And, even while spending has declined, spending had exceeded revenues, on average, by more than $100 million every year since 2008. Moreover, state law prohibits cities from increasing revenues by adding a sales tax or raising residential property tax rates more than inflation. Now, having emerged from the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, Detroit is still hindered in its recovery by structural flaws in its property tax system, according to a new report published by the prestigious Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, which has reported that Detroit’s high property tax rates, delinquency problem, inaccurate assessments, and overuse of tax breaks—together with limitations imposed by the Michigan constitution and state statutes, continue to expose the post-bankruptcy city to fiscal stress, with authors Gary Sands, a professor emeritus of urban planning at Wayne State University and co-author Mark Skidmore, a visiting fellow at the Lincoln Institute and a professor of economics at Michigan State University, writing: “Property tax reform is just one of several challenges facing Detroit and its residents, but tackling it could have a real impact on the city’s economy and quality of life, and could serve as an example for other cities struggling with population and job losses and a shrinking tax base….Detroit has an opportunity to restore the basic covenant that should exist between every city and its residents — fair and efficient taxes in exchange for good public services and reliable infrastructure.” In the post-bankrupt city, where Mayor Mike Duggan has secured Council approval to lower assessments 5 percent to 20 percent in some neighborhoods, the report recommends Detroit cut its tax rate, which is the highest of any major U.S. city and more than double the average rate for neighboring cities (The rate for homeowners is 69 mills, $69 for every $1,000 of assessed value).The report, Detroit and the Property Tax: Strategies to Improve Equity and Enhance Revenue, suggests key, post-bankruptcy reforms which could help, including: improving the city’s assessment system—a pre-bankruptcy system under which significantly over-assessed properties was a key contributor to the Motor City’s exceptional property tax delinquency rate—a rate which, the report notes, has improved, yet remains still about 30 percent, or ten times the median rate for major U.S. cities—adding the city also should reconsider its property abatement practices: Detroit has granted property tax breaks to over three percent of its 11,400 private properties; yet the report notes that research shows that the fiscal benefits of abatements are often outweighed by the costs. Significantly, the authors recommended the city should implement a land-based tax, a municipal tax based purely on the value or size of a piece of land, but with no additional tax for new development or improvements—an approach favored over the traditional property tax by many economists because it discourages holding property vacant or underutilizing land, and encourages development. The report also recommends eliminate Michigan’s “taxable-value cap,” a mechanism adopted by the state’s voters in 1994 which restricts the growth of the city’s tax base as the real estate market recovers, and which, the authors warn, also provides preferential treatment to longtime homeowners, locking in low effective tax rates at the expense of new buyers. The authors finally recommend reducing the city’s statutory tax rates, noting Detroit has the highest tax rate of any major U.S. city, more than double the average rate for neighboring cities. Lowering the rate could reduce delinquency and help increase property values, and could help offset increased tax burdens that may otherwise result from reducing abatements or eliminating the taxable-value cap.

Unschooled in Pensionary Math? While fixing Detroit’s revenue and tax systems is an ongoing issue, addressing its bankrupt public school system is key to the city’s fiscal future. Yet, now that the Detroit Public Schools (DPS) has to count its pension obligations, DPS’ balance sheet, in the first set of annual financial statements since Detroit emerged from municipal bankruptcy, the system has reported a $1.66 billion net deficit—or more than double that of a year ago—a change in significant part attributed to a new line on the balance sheet: $858 million of unfunded pension liabilities—a change reported in the wake of the implementation of a new accounting law which requires shortfalls to be counted against an entity’s assets on its annual balance sheet: DPS’s pension funded ratio as of last June 30th was 66.2%, according to the document. In contrast, other parts of DPS’s finances appear to be improving: its operating deficit was $42 million, a significant drop from the previous $70 million, and DPS appears to be modestly reducing its expenditures, where figures released demonstrated a modest reduction from $887 last year to $863 million. DPS state-appointed Emergency Manager stated: “Our team is working diligently every day to become a solvent school system which will allow local control to be restored.” Nevertheless, under strong pressure from Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, the state continues to seek a fiscal sustainable solution through a potential restructuring plan which would split DPS into two divisions: one responsible for the math: financial management, and other for the arithmetic: education. Indeed, DPS remedial math is an issue: In the first set of annual financial statements since Detroit emerged from bankruptcy, the system reported a $1.66 billion net deficit—equivalent to a 118 percent increase over last year, with the increase most adversely impacted by some $858 million of unfunded pension liabilities—liabilities which the system reports issued yesterday show DPS’s pension funded ratio as of June 30, 2015, was 66.2 percent.

Betting on the Garden State? In the wake of his conditional vetoes of the New Jersey legislature’s Atlantic City relief package, Gov. and Republican Presidential contender Chris Christie yesterday vowed he would meet with state Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) in an effort to agree on an alternate relief package for Atlantic City—a relief package the legislature sent to him last June—with the pair rolling the dice in issuing a joint statement that they intend to “construct a final and fast (sic) resolution path for Atlantic City.” Given that his veto was not issued until the very last possible moment, it is unclear what the Governor’s concept of “fast” means, but the clock began yesterday, with the legislature’s session scheduled to end in early January. In their joint statement, they said: “We remain jointly committed to Atlantic City’s long term viability as a great resort destination for entertainment, gaming and sports…Additionally, we both now understand more clearly how challenging this revitalization will be as a result of all the hard work that ensued this past year.” The timing with regard to Gov. Christie’s commitment is further complicated by the looming $11 million debt service payment due in December—a payment which Atlantic City Revenue Director Michael Stinson said would be made even if the redirected casino funds from the conditionally vetoed bills is not approved. Atlantic City Mayor Donald Guardian, who apparently was not consulted about the Governor’s last minute vetoes, is seeking better explanations and understanding from the New Jersey Office of Community Affairs with regard to the state’s concerns—especially as the clock is ticking. Or, as Garden State Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo (D-Northfield) put it: “Since June, we’ve been hopeful that Gov. Christie would do the right thing and sign these bills without delay…These bills were designed to bring real long term sustainable reforms to Atlantic City, help stabilize the tax base and generate new investments and business opportunities in the region.”

Windy City Pension Instability. Credit rating agency Moody reports, gloomily, in a special credit report, that Chicago’s unfunded pension obligations could continue to grow for at least the next decade, notwithstanding the record property tax that Mayor Rahm Emanuel secured from the City Council for the city’s public safety pension funds—and even assuming Chicago is successful in its pending legal challenges. The city’s general obligation bond ratings have steadily dropped in large part due to its accumulation of some $20 billion in unfunded liabilities, with the steep path down accelerating last spring when the rating agency dropped Chicago’s investment grade rating and issued a negative outlook. Moody analyst Matthew Butler noted: “The analysis indicates that, despite significantly increasing its contributions to its pension plans, Chicago’s unfunded pension liabilities could grow, at a minimum, for another ten years…Chicago’s statutory pension contributions will remain insufficient to arrest growth in unfunded pension liabilities for many years under each scenario,” adding that growth in the city’s unfunded liabilities and pension costs will continue “for some time regardless of the outcomes of the state’s and court’s decisions.” The credit report setback comes despite the record tax hike—a hike committed to the city’s proposed re-amortization of the schedule to implement increases in public safety pension contributions under a 2010 Illinois state mandate to fund them on an actuarial basis. Moreover, while the state legislature has passed and sent that re-amortization proposal to the Governor—a proposal which would delay the Chicago’s shift to an actuarially required contribution payment, that bill has become part of the accumulating morass caught up in Illinois’ dysfunctional ability to adopt its FY2016 budget—an inaction which is only driving up Chicago’s liabilities more, even as it prepares for a showdown before the Illinois Supreme Court next week over pension reforms approved for its municipal and laborers’ funds in Public Act 98-0641 to preserve and protect the funds’ solvency—a showdown which is an effort to overturn the lower court’s decision that the reforms violated Illinois’ constitution. A lower court judge in July voided the reforms, finding benefit cuts violated the state constitution. Yet even a win with the Supremes, Moody testily noted, despite being a “credit positive,” would still fail to address what the rating agency termed its “expectation of future growth in unfunded liabilities and the associated credit risk.” In response to the report, the city said: “Mayor Emanuel is committed to ensuring that city employees and retirees have a pension to turn to. Both SB777 and SB1922 were passed after successful discussions with the impacted unions, securing the retirements of our employees and retirees without burdening taxpayers with unsustainable pension contributions…These pension reform plans are sensible and represent a shared path forward in addressing the pension challenges that threaten Chicago’s future, while reducing the impact on taxpayers, and as Moody’s accurately states, the passage of SB777 and upholding of SB1922 are credit positives for the city.”

Addressing Structural Municipal Deficits or Compelling Municipal Bankruptcy?

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November 11, 2015. Share on Twitter

Waiting for Godot. On the very last day before a package of legislation to help Atlantic City recover would have become law, New Jersey Gov. and GOP Presidential contender Chris Christie yesterday conditionally vetoed the bills, all intended as part of a state package the New Jersey Legislature approved last June, including legislation to establish a payments-in-lieu (PILOT) of taxes program for casinos over a 15-year period—meaning the $30 million the legislature had originally earmarked for Atlantic City will now be redirected to the state, boring a large fiscal hole in the struggling city’s fiscal recovery plans. The Governor conditionally vetoed:

• a bill to reallocate the casino alternative tax to pay debt service on Atlantic City-issued municipal bonds;
• a bill to cancel the Atlantic City Alliance’s partnership with the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority and direct its $60 million budget to the city for the next two years; and
• a bill in the legislation that would have required casinos to provide full-time employees with “suitable health care and retirement benefits.”

Gov. Christie did sign a bill in the relief package which authorizes supplemental school aid to the Atlantic City School District. In a statement accompanying his vetoes, Gov. Christie challenged Garden State lawmakers in his conditional veto message to devise a plan that “addresses the continuing structural deficit in a manner that does not merely shift the city’s obligations to the state,” noting: “While I commend the Legislature for attempting to devise measures to stabilize the City’s budget and finances, I am concerned that the bills, in their present form, fail to recognize the true path to economic revitalization and fiscal stability in the city…While these bills represent the bipartisan efforts of many to provide important, near-term support to the city’s immediate challenges, I do not believe they meet the goal of setting a course toward renewed, long-term prosperity, and economic growth. To achieve these goals, we must continue our work and go further to ensure that the next step leads to that economically vibrant future for Atlantic City.”

Gov. Chris Christie’s conditional veto of the Atlantic City payment in lieu of taxes legislation does not address how casino payments will be shared with the Atlantic County, thereby leaving local officials uncertain of its effect on their municipalities. The legislation had called for Atlantic City’s remaining casinos to pay $150 million in lieu of property taxes for two years, and $120 million annually for 13 years after that. Soon after the state Legislature passed the bill earlier this year, county and city officials called for a conditional veto because there was no agreement on how much of that money would go to the county, throwing a wrench into towns’ budgeting plans.

Next Steps. The New Jersey Senate and Assembly now have the option to make changes that might satisfy Gov. Christie’s objections, albeit with the Governor having been out of the state and in still another GOP Presidential debate tonight, the options for meaningful discussions appear to have been rare. Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson and Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian had agreed Atlantic County would receive 13.5 percent of casino payments; however, that compromise was unacceptable to Atlantic City Council members; now some of the mayors in the County are calling for Atlantic City to file for municipal bankruptcy, rather than any proposal which they fear might put them at fiscal risk, such as the proposed PILOT agreement, under which there has been apprehension over the possibility of ever-larger county tax bills for 15 years.

Atlantic County Executive Levinson, in the wake of the vetoes, said he will sit down with Atlantic City and New Jersey officials to reach a compromise, noting: “I don’t want to gum things up and act like I didn’t get what I wanted…I don’t believe the Governor in his wisdom wanted winners or losers in this, but he wants a viable, good plan acceptable to everybody.” In fact, the Atlantic County freeholder board, the Atlantic County Mayors’ Association, and the League of Municipalities had joined the County Executive in calling for a conditional veto to specify the county share, arguing that anything less than 13.5 percent would transfer too big a county tax burden onto the other 22 municipalities in Atlantic County. By now, of course, the idea that there is a “good plan that is acceptable to everybody” appears more and more like a pipe dream.

Back to the Municipal Bankruptcy Option? In the wake of yesterday’s vetoes, several Atlantic County mayors said the best path forward now was for Atlantic City to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, with Galloway Township Mayor Don Purdy warning the region cannot have surrounding communities taking the hit for Atlantic City: “(Atlantic City) has too much old, lingering debt, and throwing good money at bad money won’t work…The only way to fix it is to go bankrupt at this point.” Egg Harbor Township Mayor James “Sonny” McCullough concurred, noting Egg Harbor suffered the most job losses after the casino closing and had the most foreclosures in Atlantic County, adding: “My recommendation — even before the PILOT — has been Chapter 9 bankruptcy…They need to reorganize their debt just like Detroit did. This is the best option of all, and it gives the municipality an opportunity to reevaluate its debt and reorganize its future.” Indeed, in the festering period while New Jersey municipal leaders awaited Gov. Christie’s 11th hour actions, mayors in surrounding municipalities had been warning taxpayers that their county tax rate would increase if Gov. Christie signed the PILOT bills. Atlantic County Mayors Association President Jack Glasser, the Mayor of Somers Point, said he had not had a chance to read the conditional veto, but said he would be disappointed if it did not clear up the issue of how payments would be shared, adding: “I’m going to have to discuss that with the mayors…Atlantic City needs help, but the bottom line is, it shouldn’t be on the backs of the rest of the county.” County Executive Levinson said he guessed that Gov. Christie was most likely intentionally vague about how Atlantic City and Atlantic County would share the payments in order to avoid creating winners and losers—something which no Presidential contender, after all, would wish to do. Mr. Levinson added: “Cool heads right now are what’s needed,” adding that he expects New Jersey’s Local Finance Board to have a lot of say in how the money is shared with the county, adding: “The Governor is always quoting Bruce Springsteen…“I’ll quote the Rolling Stones. ‘You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find you get what you need.’”

With the issue thus sent back to the legislature, New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) noted: “I am extremely disappointed in the Governor’s failure to enact the package of bills to aid Atlantic City’s financial recovery, and I am concerned by the time that was wasted since the plan was put on his desk close to six months ago…No one should ignore the fact that Atlantic City’s financial crisis continues and that a comprehensive, forward-looking plan is needed to prevent fiscal conditions from getting worse and that we need to act quickly. I am prepared to work constructively with everyone who is impacted by Atlantic City’s fate to help the city’s economy recover and grow.”

The Steep Road Out of Municipal Bankruptcy

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November 9, 2015. Share on Twitter

The Steep Road out of Municipal Bankruptcy. While falling into municipal bankruptcy can be a crisis involving fiscal, stewardship, ethical, and criminal failures; getting out is the steepest road possible, because one’s city or county begins at such a disadvantage to all other cities and counties across the country. So imagine the hard choices and steps for Detroit: It is now one year since now retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes approved the plan of debt adjustment to pave the way for Detroit to exit the largest municipal bankruptcy in the nation’s history, a year during which the unique state-foundation-city partnership forged under the aegis of Judge Rhodes and U.S. District Court Chief Judge Gerald Rosen paved the way for the Motor City to get back on its wheels. Exiting municipal bankruptcy does not, however—at a cost to the city and its taxpayers of $165 million, guarantee a fiscally sustainable future. Thus, while Detroit’s revenue streams appear on track or better than expected, progress on restructuring and restoring basic municipal services is consuming time, with some delays in key initiatives, such as hiring police officers. The city’s dysfunctional and embarrassing street-lighting system is nearly overhauled, and the greater downtown seems to be taking off with new development: it has already earned Detroit a bond rating upgrade. Detroit has replaced thousands of broken streetlights, and has sufficient funds to meet its daily bills and meet its reduced pension obligations; nevertheless, the task of trying to tear down thousands of blighted homes and commercial buildings, while improving city services—including public safety—has proven expensive. Moreover, critical issues not directly addressed by the plan of debt adjustment: fixing the city’s high poverty rate, unemployment, and poorly performing, fiscally bankrupt public schools—were largely left out of the plan; yet they represent grave threats to Detroit’s future. Nonetheless, Judge Rhodes told the Detroit News: “My impression is that the city is actually doing better at this point in time than we had projected during the bankruptcy case.”

The judicially approved plan cut more than $7 billion in unsecured municipal liabilities and provided for $1.4 billion over the next decade for basic services to rehabilitate a municipality which had suffered a severe population loss, criminal behavior by former elected leaders, and an inability to collect income taxes from both incoming and outgoing commuters. On the day the Governor’s appointed Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr dismissed the Mayor and Council, he estimated Detroit’s liabilities to be about $18 billion. Notwithstanding the erasure of so much debt, the city’s fiscal future still hangs in the balance: the road to recovery must overcome significant public school and public pension issues. To date, early returns for the investments since the city exited bankruptcy appear to be falling short: City officials and their watchdogs are already considering paying more into funds much sooner than prescribed by the city’s plan of debt adjustment, but how the city can pay is unclear. One of the most critical issues involves Detroit’s multibillion-dollar pension debt, where the plan will require the city to make a balloon pension payment, a payment estimated at more than $100 million, in 2024 alone—and that is assuming the city’s pension investments perform as anticipated. Or, as Michigan Treasurer Nick Khouri, who now chairs Detroit’s state financial oversight commission created during the bankruptcy, puts it: “We certainly know many people were hurt during the bankruptcy, but what would have been the alternative, and how would they have been hurt under the alternative?”

Detroit has benefitted too, not just from the federal judges and state leadership and investment, but also from its own business leaders: Detroit business leaders such as Dan Gilbert and Mike Ilitch are continuing to reinvest in the Motor City’s core, investing hundreds of millions of privately raised dollars to re-create neighborhoods where their employees and others can live, work, and play—investments which appear to be infecting enthusiasm from outside investors, including some of the country’s largest foundations and leading businesses, such as the Ford Foundation to JPMorgan Chase, and even India-based Sakthi Automotive. That is, there is important private investment in the Motor City’s economic and fiscal future—including some of the largest creditors during Detroit’s bankruptcy, who, nevertheless, assumed significant financial stakes in Detroit’s future by taking over city parking garages and securing redevelopment rights to landmark properties such as Joe Louis Arena. A $245-million bond offering to finance reinvestment in city services this summer came at a premium for the city, but it also benefited investment grades from rating agencies for a city once seen as earning only junk status.

A Tale of Two Cities? Nevertheless, outside of the core areas, for a physically enormous city of 139 square miles, but now with just a third of its former population, the task of recovery is bedeviled by the difficulty of focus. Indeed, as the Detroit News notes, some residents in neighborhoods have coined the phrase “Two Detroits” to describe a disconnect between the extraordinary redevelopment taking place in the city’s greater downtown core, even as in its fragile neighborhoods, the FBI reports Detroit to be one of the country’s most crime-ridden cities, despite nationally declining violent crime in 2014, according to FBI statistics. It remains a city of abandoned homes and buildings, and, as Wayne State law Professor John Mogk told the News, like the game whack-a-mole: “I think the city’s off to a very good start in removing blight, but it’s a moving target: As vacant buildings are removed, other vacant buildings crop up because of the rash of tax and mortgage foreclosures that are ongoing,” adding that the city’s high hopes of eliminating blight in as little as five years appear over-optimistic, albeit he regards a decade as more realistic. Nevertheless, that will be a challenge: Detroit is still losing population—surely, in some part—because of its separate, failing public schools. Thus, the city is still experiencing an outflow of citizens/taxpayers: the Census Bureau reported a 1 percent outflow in 2013.

Post-bankruptcy Governance. Emerging from bankruptcy is, after all, not only about restoring normalcy, but also about finding critical resources to invest in a competitive future. It is far harder to recover from than to fall into municipal bankruptcy. First, it requires restoring key municipal services: Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan reports that Detroit’s buses, for the first time in two decades, are meeting posted schedules, and that police and ambulance response times have been significantly reduced. Second, it requires constructing a fiscally sustainable future; thus, the city has begun that process by tearing down more than 7,000 blighted homes in the last year and a half; it has reversed fiscal deficits: revenues are growing: Mayor Duggan reports Detroit now expects to bring in more revenue than expected in its current fiscal year: thanks to rebounding real estate prices in neighborhoods across the city, property tax revenues are up; however, Mayor Duggan notes that income tax collections, the city’s most critical source of revenues, are coming in below projections. The Mayor notes: “We’re OK for now, but if we don’t deal with that, it will become an issue.”

Defining Fiscal Choices for the Future & Pensionary Apprehensions. Emerging from bankruptcy is about making defining choices. The centerpiece of Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment was its blueprint for the city’s future: the so-called grand bargain, an $816-million investment by the State of Michigan, some of the nation’s leading foundations, and the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) to preserve the city-owned art museum collection in exchange for helping to both reduce pension obligations and pay down the city’s pension debt. After emerging from the shadow of the city’s bankruptcy, the DIA hit its $100-million fund-raising goal for the grand bargain earlier this year: it is about directly confronting the long-term fiscal challenge of public pensions—that is, thinking outside the current year fiscal calendar to the issue which is vital to both a full emergence from municipal bankruptcy, but also about having a competitive workforce. For Detroit, that remains a front and center challenge: notwithstanding the concessions incorporated in the plan of debt adjustment, Detroit’s post-bankruptcy pension fund investments have performed below expectations in the first year after bankruptcy. And this is amongst the hardest of choices and responsibilities, because it requires such a disciplined, long-term commitment. Jim Spiotto, the guru of municipal bankruptcy, referring to the task before the city described the city’s approved plan of debt adjustment as “not only a grand bargain, but a grand bet,” adding that while the federally approved plan largely absolves Detroit of its obligation to pay into the pension system for a decade; nevertheless, “projecting 10 years out is quite difficult, so I think they are going to have to pay attention to that.” That is, perhaps the key inattention which contributed the most—along, of course, with criminally-related behavior by the imprisoned former mayor, now will require the most: Mayor Duggan and key city officials concur that the remaining municipal pension obligations are significant—even as early returns since the city’s emergence from bankruptcy have not been good: Detroit’s two pension funds reported rates of return on its investments of less than 4% in the first half of the year, not disproportionately from other cities and counties, but rather reflecting a poorly performing market: the Detroit General Retirement System, which covers most city retirees, posted a 2.7% return for the six months ending last June 30th, and projections are that the General Retirement System fund with a market value today of $2 billion could be worse, with a warning: It “will likely show an investment loss,” according to an actuarial report the week before last commissioned by the fund, wherein the most recent figures show the General Retirement System has a funding level of 62.5%–a level assuming the city will earn a 6.75% return on its investments in the coming decades—a likely optimistic assumption. Indeed, according to an analysis last month by the actuarial firm Gabriel Roeder Smith & Co. for the General Retirement System, if the return is lower — say 4.29%, or the equivalent of the current long-term municipal bond rate — the funding level would decline to less than 50%, a drop which could have fiscal and taxing consequences for not just Detroit’s employees, but also its taxpayers. Martha Kopacz, who analyzed the plan of debt adjustment for Judge Rhodes and serves as a member of the Detroit Financial Review Commission, is apprehensive that low public pension investment returns, especially in the early years, could mean the payments still owed by the city will have to increase when it resumes its funding of the system. Under the city’s plan of adjustment, Detroit is already obligated to pay its largest pension fund $118 million in 2024—even if the funds met projected investment returns, according to one recent pension analysis. Worryingly, as the invaluable Ms. Lopacz notes: “There was really no Plan B if it doesn’t work…People just get tired of me chirping about this, but this is a really big number.”

Can Detroit grow its way out of a pension problem? As part of Detroit’s court-approved plan of adjustment, the pension systems lowered their annual expected growth rate to 6.75% from 7.9%; yet what appeared to be a conservative adjustment might not have been sufficient: Eric Scorsone, Professor and Director of the Center for Local Government Finance at Michigan State University, worries that even that lower assumed rate of return could be a challenge to achieve: “To be quite frank (no, not a pun), what they’re using is still pretty high.” At a meeting late last month, Detroit Financial Review Commission member Darrell Burks, a former senior partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, noted: “We need to be prepared — whatever the number is — to accept the reality that it’s going to be a substantial amount in 2024,” adding that he estimates an adjustment in the upcoming city budget “somewhere between $100 to $200 million to accommodate this problem.” Original forecasts submitted to Judge Rhodes with regard to the city’s public pension obligations showed the city paying roughly $92 million into the pension funds between now through 2024, aided in no small part by the so-called grand bargain; however, by 2024, pension payments made by the city alone could explode in subsequent decades: Detroit’s pension payments between 2024 and 2034 are expected to be roughly $1 billion, according to forecasts produced by former Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr’s staff, with the debt owed by the city remaining at about $900 million between the years FY2034 through 2044, before dropping to about $629 million, according to the 40-year projection submitted as part of the bankruptcy. As with a teeter-totter, Detroit leaders are counting on investments today to reverse the city’s population outflow and, thereby, increase its tax base—an increase which would enhance its ability to pay off its pension debt without blowing a hole in its budget.

Reversing Detroit’s Outflow & Investing in its Future: Let there be light! Indeed, the hard choices about what investments would be most critical to reversing Detroit’s out-migration which has left a smaller workforce to meet a growing number of pensioners is central to the city’s viable fiscal and sustainable future. One of Detroit’s plan of adjustment revenue-related proposals included $483 million in anticipated new municipal revenues realized from higher bus fares and improved tax collection—an improvement in part dependent upon a change in state legislation so that the city could collect income taxed owed by commuters both into the city—and residents who commute out of the city. Thus, in its plan, Detroit proposed both a $1.4-billion reinvestment initiative to rebuild the city, as well as to enhance its ability to realize some $358 million in cost savings from establishing a more efficient city government, savings which could then be translated into an addition to its reinvestment plan. But doing a 180 degree turn from disinvestment to reinvestment is a challenge: Detroit CFO John Hill notes Detroit’s municipal budgeting process is, most unsurprisingly, deliberately cautious: in the wake of its bankruptcy, that city has imposed stricter rules for each city department in order to meet financial goals. But this is a bold step and the space between cup and lip can be great: A $185-million project to overhaul and modernize the Motor City’s ancient and non-performing street-lighting system is on budget; it is ahead of schedule with more than 56,000 new LED streetlights installed of the planned 65,000, according to officials, thanks to the newly created Public Lighting Authority of Detroit. Seeing the light, many Detroiters are, unsurprisingly, pleasantly surprised: As the city’s patron saint of its exit from municipal bankruptcy, Judge Rosen, notes: “The lights are coming back on…All these new young kids moving back to Detroit, it really creates a sense of optimism and momentum.” But shedding light is, unfortunately, an achievement with consequences: it might better enable citizens and property tax payers to fret that the estimate by former Emergency Manager Orr had envisioned of as much as $500 million to battle blight over the next decade now, under the harsher light of fiscal reality, will be only what Mayor Duggan is able to snag from beyond the city’s municipal revenues. For his part, Mayor Duggan has empowered the Detroit Land Bank Authority to take the lead: the Land Bank, confronted with nearly 80,000 blighted or abandoned parcels, has auctioned and closed the sale of 527 houses to new owners and sold 2,655 vacant side lots to current homeowners, according to city figures; it has also posted 5,133 “eyesore” properties with notices of coming action and filed 3,246 lawsuits against the owners of those properties, with more than half of those cases already resolved in the city’s favor. Moreover, there has been a bonus to this hard-fought turnaround: Executive Fire Commissioner Eric Jones reports that the blight removal, to date, has been crucial to reducing the number of fires: “If you remove 7,000 blighted, vacant structures, that is fuel that arsonists don’t have to burn…it’s gone.” Nevertheless, it is a small bite of a colossal challenge: With roughly 100,000 vacant lots in the Motor City, and tens of thousands of vacant buildings, Detroit could devote years at its current stepped-up pace before ridding the city of all eyesores—years during which how to continue to finance this critical but unprecedented effort for any major American city will be harder and harder to answer.

Workforce Challenges. As if Detroit does not face enough challenges, the one it confronts with regard to labor is one of epic proportions. The revived Detroit Workforce Development Board, which convened for the first time late last month to tackle the goal of creating 100,000 jobs in the city, is working toward streamlining programs to create a systematic, unified approach to employing Detroit residents—residents who are disproportionately unskilled, underemployed, and undereducated—and where the challenge is further complicated, complex, and massive, because jobs do not match the population. Today, just over half of Detroit residents work—and of those who do, a majority have no more than a high school diploma. The future is hardly heartening: with the Detroit Public School System itself failing, it is hardly serving as a pipeline for Detroit’s future sustainability; the harsh reality for Detroit’s leaders is how to put 49,000 of its residents to work just to match the Michigan state average of labor force participation. Indeed, notwithstanding dozens of labor training programs, new business investments, jobs are not coming fast enough: Last year, Detroit had 258,807 jobs and a population of 706,663, according to an April report by the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce and funded by J.P. Morgan Chase & Co.: e.g.: only 0.37 jobs for every resident — one of the lowest levels in the country. Consultants and the expert witness U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes hired to assess Detroit’s plan of debt adjustment questioned the capacity and ability of the city’s workforce to adjust, reporting that large numbers of workers and even managers lacked skills and education that would be prerequisites for their responsibilities. Detroit’s plan of adjustment calls for spending millions on training and retraining workers, in addition to an overhaul of the city’s human resources operations. That will be a critical effort: today, of the 258,807 jobs in Detroit, 71 percent are held by employees commuting from the suburbs—ergo the extraordinary situation of reverse commuting in the region—a region where there are more middle-to high-skilled jobs in the city than in the suburbs, but where the city’s work force is largely under trained and under educated: 38 percent of jobs in Detroit are considered high-skill, requiring at least an associate degree—a higher level than any of the city’s surrounding counties; but 63 percent of working Detroiters possess no more than a high school diploma, increasingly leaving city residents unqualified for jobs where they live. As Mayor Duggan told Crain’s: “What this says is that we need to do a whole lot better with our buses…We need a whole range of jobs, and what we’ve done is make it easier for business to open in the city by simplifying the permitting process.”

Trying to Put Out Fiscal Fires. As if Detroit and Mayor Duggan do not face enough superhuman trials, now chronic problems at the Detroit Fire Department are converting into higher fire insurance rates—hardly a change for a city seeking to draw in new residents—especially to a city which already has the highest rates in Michigan—and which now appear likely to rise again in the wake of a downgrade by Insurance Services Office, which analyzes and rates city and county fire protection for insurance companies—and which has downgraded Detroit, making the first change in Detroit’s rating in a quarter century—a downgrade, in effect, with immediate impacts on Detroit’s homeowners—changes in some cases of as much as 70%, with the impact of the rate change varying by agency and policy. The average premium in Detroit is about $1,700 per year, more than double the Michigan statewide average. Statewide, it was $802 in 2012, the last year records were available from the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. Eric Jones, who was confirmed last week as Fire Commissioner by the Detroit City Council, told the Detroit News that Mayor Mike Duggan is committed to improving the rating: “Clearly, Detroit was hurt by the downgrading of the status…The Mayor made it one of my highest priorities….It’s huge.” The Insurance Services Office (ISO) ranks about 48,000 municipalities across the country with regard to their ability to respond to fires — and save homes — on a scale of 1 to 10: the lower the number, the better the protection offered, noting that two decades ago, Detroit received a 2 rating, which escalated to a 4 by November of 2013. These ratings remain in place for a decade unless communities apply to the ISO to be re-evaluated—an application Commissioner Jones reports he plans to do by next year, as, in keeping with the city’s plan of debt adjustment, the city has been focused on replacing fire engines, fixing its 9-1-1 service, investing in new gear, demolishing some 7,000 vacant homes—homes which became targets for arsonists, and increased its fire department by more than 25 percent. Last year, fires caused $229 million in damage in Detroit, or nearly half the damage realized statewide, according to National Fire Incident Reporting System. Arson and burglary appear to be the two key ingredients which contribute to Detroit’s record as having the highest homeowner insurance rates in the state—but, without question, the combination of higher rates and the apprehension about arson and fire will increase the heat on the Department.

Foundation for the Future. Critical for any future for Detroit is fixing its fiscally bankrupt public school system—a challenge if the city is to have realistic hopes of drawing young families. State lawmakers and Gov. Rick Snyder are seeking to do the math and design a state financial rescue of the Detroit Public Schools by the end of this calendar year, an arithmetically $715 million state rescue of the Detroit Public Schools, but one where it is less the math, and more the politics that are proving to be an obstacle. The governance challenges involve both the fiscal costs and the governance reforms. Republican leaders are apprehensive about any proposed bailout and reforms, while Democrats oppose any bailout unless power is taken from the state-appointed emergency manager and restored to Detroit’s elected school board. Part of the challenge is any perception that a state bailout would be still another drain on the state for the City of Detroit—or, as Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) perceives it, a source other than the state’s School Aid Fund, which would be drained by $50 a pupil for each of Michigan’s 1.5 million students for the next decide under Gov. Snyder’s proposed plan; whilst House Speaker Kevin Cotter (R-Mount Clemens) notes: “We want to take our time and make sure we’re doing right by them.”

Voting for a City’s Post-Bankruptcy Future. The San Bernardino Sun, in an editorial, could hardly have written it better:

“You are one of the 7,000-plus who voted in Tuesday’s election to seat four San Bernardino City Council members, we thank you. And we have a job for you. Tell your neighbors why you voted. Tell them why it matters. Tell them that while you’re happy to make decisions on their behalf, you’d rather see them disagree with you at the polls. Tell them to get involved. Three years into what is the city’s biggest crisis in a generation — municipal bankruptcy — it’s discouraging to see that so few residents took the time to choose a batch of city leaders who will be tasked with moving San Bernardino toward a more fiscally sound future. In the race for city treasurer, the only contested citywide race on Tuesday’s ballot, 7,367 votes were cast, according to unofficial election results. That amounts to slightly less than 10 percent of the city’s registered voters. There are those working to boost the city’s appalling turnout — which, by the way, is not unique. Countywide, turnout was about 10 percent Tuesday. But in a city where so much is at stake — from whether the city can afford to pay police officers to whether it can maintain public parks — it’s difficult to understand why turnout is not higher. We’re not alone in asking this question. The League of Women Voters of San Bernardino is puzzling its way through a plan to engage voters. Other groups such as Generation Now are working to get out the vote. Candidates themselves do a huge amount of networking with their supporters in trying to bring people to the polls.

And yet.

In a report on Tuesday’s dismal turnout, staff writer Ryan Hagen showed that, in the past three elections, the only one to crack the still-not-enough 25 percent turnout rate involved a controversial measure that would have changed the way the city pays its public safety employees. It also happened to coincide with the general election, a switch for San Bernardino. The city has long-held its elections for local office in odd-numbered years, as dictated by the century-old City Charter. Efforts to overhaul the charter have been met with mixed results (see the November 2014 attempt to erase the charter section outlining how the city should set salaries for certain public safety employees). But, based on recent experience, a group working to bring charter reform measures to voters may have reason to consider pushing forward with a measure to switch San Bernardino’s elections to even-numbered years, as Los Angeles has done. In the meantime, those who already know the power they wield by turning out to the polls have a few months to convince relatives, friends and neighbors in the 6th and 7th wards to take the time to vote in the February runoff. Their job is just beginning.

Waiting for Godot. Five bills which, could help avert municipal bankruptcy for Atlantic City and put it on the path to a sustainable fiscal future will become law today unless Governor and Presidential candidate Chris Christie intervenes—including a controversial plan, the Casino Property Taxation Stabilization Act (PILOT), to allow casinos to make fixed annual payments instead of highly variable property-tax payments, legislation intended to help reduce the instability and uncertainty of the city’s property-tax system—but legislation which surrounding Atlantic County’s top officials believe could do more fiscal harm than good, with Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson calling it “one of the worst pieces of legislation that anyone has ever seen.” The bill, if enacted, would permit casinos to stop making property-tax payments to the city; instead, they could make payments in lieu of taxes equivalent to $150 million in payments annually for two years, dropping to $120 million for each of the next 13 years. The bill, which the legislature sent to the Governor last June, along with bills to dismantle the Atlantic City Alliance, Atlantic City’s nonprofit marketing arm, and sharply reduce funding for the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (an authority which uses casino-paid taxes to finance large local events and development projects). Under the pending state legislation, funds would be diverted from those agencies and instead go toward paying down Atlantic City’s debt and expenses. Despite how long Gov. Christie has had to react to these bills, however, he has been uncharacteristically silent. The issue of property taxes has put Atlantic City into a Twilight Zone of governance—caught between a state-appointed Emergency Manager and City Hall, but the underlying issue has been the difficulty for the city to have budgeting certainty in the wake of annual casinos court appeals over the assessed values: almost like spinning the dials, the appeals force the city not only to expend resources addressing the challenges in court, but also at risk of being mandated to make out-sized property-tax refunds to the gaming resorts—refunds in excess of $100 million, in one instance. Thus, as Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo (D-Atlantic) notes, if the PILOT becomes law, “[T]there will be no more tax appeals from the casinos.” The city is not alone in hoping the bill becomes law: the Casino Association of New Jersey, which lobbies for Atlantic City casinos, worries that more casinos will close if the bill is not enacted. New Jersey Assemblyman Chris Brown (R-Atlantic), a supporter of the legislation, told Bloomberg Atlantic City has made progress in reducing its budget, but its outstanding liabilities are still too large to convince him it will not need to increase taxes in coming years, stating he would prefer the bill to be rewritten to shorten the duration of the PILOT program and amend the formulas that determine the payment amounts, noting: “We have to find a way to stabilize property taxes for everyone in Atlantic County.”

Safeguarding a City’s Sustainable Fiscal Future. Romy Varghese, writing for Bloomberg this morning examined another peril that could lead to a fiscal drowning in Atlantic City: Even as its over reliance on casinos has imposed great fiscal risk, so too, it turns out, its public pension benefits have not exactly been fiscally lifesaving, reporting that, in what she termed: “[O]ne of those relics from the lavish and loud Prohibition-era Atlantic City depicted in television and film. Despite just a four-month beach season and a battered casino industry, lifeguards who work 20 years, the last 10 of them consecutively, still qualify at age 45 for pensions equal to half their salaries. When they die, the payments continue to their dependents. About 100 ex-lifeguards and survivors collected anywhere from $850 to $61,000 from the city’s general fund last year, according to public records. In all, it comes to $1 million this year. That’s a significant chunk of cash for a municipal government with annual revenue of about $262 million and, more importantly, it’s emblematic of the city’s broader struggle to downsize spending and contain a budget deficit that has soared as the local economy collapsed. Kevin Lavin, the emergency manager appointed by Governor Christi, has cited lifeguard pensions as a possible item for “shared sacrifice” in a community already forced to fire workers and raise taxes. Mr. Lavin is expected to report this week on the likely timetable for his report and recommendations. Mr. Varghese notes the lifesaving benefits of lifesaving in the fiscally distressed city: “About 100 ex-lifeguards and survivors collected anywhere from $850 to $61,000 from the city’s general fund last year, according to public records. In all, it comes to $1 million this year—emblematic of the city’s broader struggle to downsize spending and contain a budget deficit that has soared as the local economy collapsed.” Mr. Lavin, in his report which could be completed this week, is not expected to throw a lifeline to the retired but unretiring lifeguards, citing the lifeguard pensions as a possible item for “shared sacrifice” in a community already forced to fire workers and raise taxes. By the same token, the retired lifeguards appear unlikely to sit on their lifeguard stands and idly play their beach ukuleles whilst their pensions are floated out to sea, with one noting: We worked under the precept that we were going to get a pension, and that’s a certain amount of money…I’m not responsible for the mismanagement of the politicians, and I’m not responsible for the casinos leaving.” Or, as they might say at one of the city’s casinos” ‘A card laid, is a card played.’

Municipal Elections: Will They Provide a Platform for Fiscal Sustainability?

November 6, 2015. Share on Twitter

Voting for a City’s Post-Bankruptcy Future. In an election, where a majority, or four of the seven San Bernardino City Council seats were on the ballot, to determine half of the leaders who will shape whether and how San Bernardino might emerge from the longest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, only one-third of the city’s residents are even registered to vote. The greatest number of votes—in an election with an abysmal turnout of about 10 percent—came in the race for city Treasurer, where the incumbent, David Kennedy easily won reelection by a 2-1 margin. Or, as City Clerk Gigi Hanna, who was re-elected in an uncontested election, describes it: “It’s abysmal,” referring to the low turnout: “It’s a perennial problem in this area.” Councilman John Valdivia, who ran unopposed, was re-elected with 641 votes. In the 6th Ward, four candidates split a total of 983, while there were just over 1,500 votes cast in the 5th and 7th wards—where in the latter, 7th Ward Councilman Jim Mulvihill will face a runoff — albeit it remains uncertain who his opponent will be. Final, unofficial results appear to indicate that Bessine Littlefield Richard will face Roxanne Williams in a runoff for the 6th Ward. In the 5th Ward race, incumbent Henry Nickel won re-election with 66 percent of the vote, while incumbent San Bernardino Treasurer was easily reelected with 71 percent of the vote. In the city races where none of the candidates reach 50 percent, the top two vote-getters will advance to a February run-off. The runoff in the 7th – in the north end of the city, where the abysmal voter turnout was about 5% — centered on incumbent Councilmember Mulvihill, who had been elected two years ago in the wake of a recall election of Wendy McCammack. In the 6th Ward race to replace retiring Councilman Rikke Van Johnson, Littlefield Richard of San Bernardino County’s Workforce Development Department has been narrowly leading Roxanne Williams, a program specialist for the San Bernardino City Unified School District — 370 votes to 356 votes — reversing their order from the first round of results. However, both are assured placement on the runoff ballot, beating out Anthony Jones (156 votes) and Rafael Rawls (101 votes). Challenger Karmel Roe failed to dislodge the long-term hold of incumbent City Treasurer David Kennedy, who has served for some 24 years. A mortgage broker who ran for Mayor two years ago and the 5th Ward City Council in 2014, Mr. Roe attacked Treasurer Kennedy for not having done more to help a bankrupt city. The specific commitments Ms. Roe campaigned on that said she would do to change the office — demanding audits, taking control of the Finance Department, encouraging economic development in the city — are, however, not issues in the city which the treasurer is authorized to handle under the current city charter. Incumbent City Attorney Gary Saenz, City Clerk Gigi Hanna and 3rd Ward Councilman John Valdivia all, successfully—and unopposed, were re-elected.

Waiting for Godot. S&P yesterday reported it was keeping Atlantic City on credit watch negative as the credit rating agency awaits both an updated report by Emergency Manager Kevin Lavin and an expected decision by New Jersey Governor and aspiring GOP Presidential candidate Chris Christie whether and when he might sign into law a financial assistance package approved by the New Jersey State Legislature. Atlantic City Revenue Director Michael Stinson said he expects resolution on the fate of the legislature-approved rescue package by next week before the state Assembly and Senate return to session. If Gov. Christie takes no action before the new session, the five bills automatically become law, according to Mr. Stinson: “If the bills are passed than we are going to get revenue…The uncertainty of the bills should be resolved by next week.” Atlantic City, which is in a fiscal and governance Twilight Zone, with its municipal finances overseen by a state-appointed overseer and Mayor Don Guardian, is closing a $101 million budget deficit this year by firing employees, and crossing its fingers for a state assistance package approval. The city’s proposed budget, approved by the state’s Local Finance Board at the end of last month, depends on Governor and Presidential candidate Chris Christie’s approval of bills that would allow the city to spend $33.5 million of revenue from casinos that now goes to redevelopment projects and marketing. The Atlantic City budget was adopted nine months late, but came in time to mail fourth quarter tax bills and also fully funds its annual requirements for settled tax appeals. Emergency Manager Lavin, testifying before the legislature in Trenton, told state lawmakers the budget was an initial step to ease a fiscal crisis in the city, while Mayor Guardian testified: “We understand that we can’t get out of this by ourselves.” The unique partnership between Mayor Guardian and state-appointed emergency manager Lavin has led to the dismissal of more than 100 employees, reducing the city’s workforce by nearly a third, and deferring payments for employee pensions and health-care benefits, while continuing to meet Atlantic City’s obligations to its municipal bondholders. Nevertheless, S&P last month cut the city’s credit rating deeper into junk, because it had yet to lay out detailed plans for dealing with its fiscal distress. S&P ranks the debt B, five levels below investment grade. Moody’s Investors Service grades it two steps lower at Caa1.

S&P analysts Timothy Little and Lisa Schroeer noted in a report yesterday that while the state’s Local Finance Board approved a balanced Atlantic City 2015 budget in late September, that budget relies on anticipated revenues of $33.5 million in redirected casino taxes and $38.9 million in deferred pension and health care expenses. The pending assistance package adopted by the legislature last June of five bills would allow the redirection of casino taxes to pay debt service. S&P said the city reported it will be able to make an $11 million December 2015 debt service payment even the anticipated redirected casino tax revenue is not received. S&P dropped Atlantic City’s credit rating three notches by S&P in August due to uncertainty over whether it could meet its 2015 fiscal obligations. Now the city awaits both the decision of the peripatetic Gov. Christie as well as a second report from Emergency Manager Lavin which is expected anon. The city is rated Caa1 by Moody’s Investors Service.

Unaccountability? The road to municipal bankruptcy can be paved by inattention and unaccountability. Thus, a California audit of the City of Beaumont, an LA suburb, found that the city failed to properly account for nearly three quarters of a billion dollars’ worth of municipal bond transactions and that the municipality was unable to provide the State Controller’s office with any accounting records for the bond transactions—and that neither the current city management nor its employees were able to provide any information or records of bond transactions, according to the audit. Beaumont officials say they are already taking steps to address what the report called pervasive shortcomings resulting in non-existent accounting controls for the city: the state report found that 95% of the city’s internal control elements reviewed in an audit of fiscal years 2012-13 and 2012-14 were inadequate—or, as California Controller Betty Yee stated: “These kinds of deficiencies are of great concern,” adding: “However, I am encouraged that city leaders recognize the need to implement major improvements.” The audit uncovered widespread deficiencies that rendered them effectively non-existent, with 75 of 79 internal control elements determined to be inadequate, or, as Ms. Yee explained: “These kinds of deficiencies are of great concern, especially to the citizens of Beaumont, who rightly expect their city government to safeguard their tax dollars.” The state fiscal investigation came in the wake of an FBI and Riverside County District Attorney’s Office search conducted at Beaumont City Hall. Controller Yee launched her audit last May, a month after the Riverside County District Attorney’s office and the FBI executed warrants at City Hall, former City Manager Alan Kapanicas’ house, and the Beaumont offices of Urban Logic Consultants, a firm which had provided many of the city’s top managers on a contract basis. No charges have been filed, but the investigation is ongoing; the audit found improper accounting by three city agencies for bonds issued between 1993 and 2014.

Among the state findings:

  • The city failed to properly account for bond transactions by three of its units, including financing and utility authorities and a community facilities district that together issued $626 million in bonds. As a result, the Controller’s team could not determine whether the bond proceeds were used for the intended purposes.
  • The former city manager and former public works director, both principals of outside consultants that provided city staff, received fees from bond proceeds for their services. In the absence of any written agreements, it was unclear whether these services were separate from their responsibilities as city officials. These two officials approved payments to the consulting companies where they were principals, creating conflicts of interests.
  • In 2008, Beaumont obtained a reseller’s permit from the state Board of Equalization, allowing it to purchase items outside the city without paying sales tax, even though the city did not appear to be in the business of selling goods. Beaumont also allowed one of its vendors to use the permit. The arrangement allowed the city to shift sales tax revenues from other jurisdictions by moving the supposed point of sale within its boundaries.
  • The city did not consistently follow its competitive bidding laws. City staff bought equipment or let contracts for public works without competitive bidding, arguing that the vendor was the only source, yet failed to provide documents supporting this claim. In 2013, the city entered into a no-bid contract with Urban Logic Consultants that allowed engineering projects to be approved through “job cards” rather than open, competitive bidding.
  • The city lacked receipts and descriptions for credit card purchases, supporting documentation for loans made to employees, and sufficient records for a loan to a private business. Invoices were missing, including purchases from a construction company totaling more than $1 million.
  • For five years in a row, the city ended the fiscal year with material deficits of as much as $10 million in its General Fund. It did not have sufficient revenue to fund existing levels of service. The city said it would cover these deficits with $21.5 million owed by its redevelopment agency. However, the redevelopment agency has been dissolved and it is highly uncertain that amount can be collected.
  • Beaumont failed to do timely bank reconciliations and did not segregate staff duties.

According to acting City Manager Elizabeth Gibbs-Urtiaga, the findings of the Controller’s office confirm what the City Council and the new city management team uncovered last summer, in the wake of which, last month, the former city manager signed a separation agreement valued at $213,702.75 to terminate his contract, according to city documents—or, as Beaumont Mayor Brenda Knight said in a statement: “We have been very busy correcting the business practices going forward.”

Bankruptcy: To Be Eligible or Not to Be, that is the question.

October 5, 2015

Who’s on First in Atlantic City? There was a bankruptcy filing in Atlantic City yesterday: American Apparel is filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, a filing which came after the Los Angeles corporation reported that its U.S. retail stores will continue to operate and that its international stores are not affected, but a plan which would, pending approval by a federal bankruptcy court, erase more than $200 million in bonds held by the retailer in exchange for equity interests. Lenders will provide about $90 million in debtor-in-possession financing. The company’s board has approved the restructuring plan, which is expected to be completed in about six months—and then will await the court approvals. In contrast, there has been no municipal bankruptcy filing by Atlantic City, notwithstanding the continued silence from Presidential candidate and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie with regard to whether and when he might interrupt his campaign to sign financial relief provisions long since sent to him by the New Jersey legislature to authorize the city’s casinos to make payments in lieu of taxes over the next 15 years and reallocate the casino alternative tax to pay debt service on Atlantic City-issued municipal bonds. In the strange municipal leadership dilemma in which Mayor Don Guardian sits—awaiting action by an absentee Governor and not fully clear about the hydra-headed governance situation where the mostly absentee governor has appointed an emergency manager to act in an ill-defined role as a quasi co-mayor—Mayor Guardian nevertheless is focused on efforts to signally change the city’s fiscal dependence on casinos by diversifying the city’s economic base. Nevertheless, with a $101 million deficit and delayed FY2016 budget (adopted last week), in addition to a withering credit rating; Mayor Guardian has cut the city’s personnel by 400 positions, and worked with his Council to help plug the budget gap—even as he and his fellow elected Councilmembers await Emergency Manager Kevin Lavin’s expected second report, which is to include fiscal sustainability recommendations—recommendations in this strange, two-headed quasi municipal governance situation—and in which the missing Governor’s action will be critical. Notwithstanding his tenuous authority under New Jersey’s unique municipal bankruptcy laws, Mayor Guardian is not just sitting around twiddling his thumbs; rather he is focused on his city’s future, telling the Bond Buyer’s Andrew Coen: “I want to prepare my city for the next recession…Whether that is five or 10 years away, I want to make sure that we’re a lot more than just a resort town so that we become resilient.” That focus, especially since quasi hurricane San Joaquin opted to not vent its physical fury on the city, will be easier in the wake of New Jersey’s Local Finance Board approval of the city’s budget, which opened the way for Atlantic City to proceed with fourth-quarter tax bills and tax-lien sales for some big delinquent properties among current and former casino hotels.

The Anomalies of Municipal Bankruptcy. Hillview, Kentucky, the small (population under 10,000) home rule-class municipality in Bullitt County, Kentucky—a rural farming community just a hop, skip, and jump from Louisville, which filed for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in August—the first filing for a municipality since Detroit’s filing more than two years’ ago—might find its filing unavailing. Having ignored the electronically musically and sound advice of retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, who oversaw the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, Steven Rhodes, the small city could be digging itself into a deeper fiscal trough, even as it preps to argue before U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Alan C. Stout. Judge Stout will have to determine if the municipality’s filing was done in good faith, in addition to assessing the justifications. The municipality’s largest creditor, Truck America LLC, which has been awarded an $11.4 million judgment against Hillview (with the interest bring the growing amount of said award now up to $15 million) has filed an objection with the U.S, bankruptcy court, arguing the municipality is ineligible because its petition to the federal court which the municipality relied on to file for reorganization “suffers from a fatal flaw: it refers only to the now-repealed Bankruptcy Act.” The objection, which in a sense echoes earlier moody warnings from credit rating agency Moody’s that: “Generally, a municipality must prove that it is not paying its debts on time or is unable to pay the obligations as they become due,” a bar which the credit rating agency had noted would be difficult to overcome, as the municipality had the fiscal capacity to increase its property and occupational license taxes—not to mention the authority and ability to issue bonds to pay for losses in legal judgments, according to the credit rating agency. In its objection to the federal court, Truck America’s attorney wrote that Kentucky courts would likely require that the Kentucky Legislature amend state law (in this instance, §66.400), the Bluegrass State’s municipal bankruptcy statute, under which two municipal entities, both utility districts, have previously filed. Truck America, in its brief, also wrote that Hillview had not negotiated in good faith to settle its court-awarded $11.4 million claim over a contract dispute as required by the bankruptcy code, noting: “Hillview did not file Chapter 9 in good faith to adjust its debts, or to ameliorate bona fide financial distress…Rather, it admits to being ‘fiscally sound’ and filed this case for the specific purpose of minimizing the amount it will be required to pay one creditor—Truck America—on account of a judgment affirmed by Kentucky’s appellate courts,” adding that impairing a single creditor is not a legitimate municipal bankruptcy objective. Interestingly, in its filing, Truck America wrote that the municipality had not complied with Kentucky’s constitution—specifically the provision therein which requires that the state’s municipalities raise taxes in order to pay authorized indebtedness, such as a judgment, within 40 years. If that were not enough of a fiscal nightmare, last August, Hillview Mayor Jim Eadens said the city is exploring malpractice claims against its former attorney. He did not provide any details.

Schooling in Municipal Bankruptcy

eBlog

August 27, 2015

Schooling in Muni Bankruptcy. Paul Vallas, CEO of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) from 1995 to 2001, this week warned that were CPS to file for municipal bankruptcy—should the legislature authorize municipal bankruptcy in Illinois as proposed by Governor Bruce Rauner—that could devolve CPS, whose credit rating has been reduced to junk status by Fitch, into a financial “death spiral.” Mr. Vallas warned that such a filing would lead to an exodus of students from the system, which, in turn, would trigger a decline in state aid—in effect triggering a vicious fiscal cycle. Gov. Rauner, in proposing authorization of chapter 9 for Illinois municipalities has said CPS would be a good candidate for such a filing. The warning came as Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s CPS school board yesterday unanimously approved CPS’s budget, relying heavily on borrowed money and the hope of a nearly $500 million bailout from the legislature—a legislature which appears to be in a semi-permanent stalemate. Absent the assumed state aid, CPS will have few options but to make searing cuts in January. The $5.7 billion spending plan contains another property tax hike — an estimated $19-a-year increase for the owner of a $250,000 home — as well as teacher and staff layoffs. The CPS budget action came as the Chicago Board of Education also prepared to issue $1 billion in municipal bonds and agreed to spend $475,000 so an accounting firm can monitor a cash flow problem so acute that CPS considered skipping a massive teacher pension payment at the end of June. Mayor Emanuel’s new choice for board president, former ComEd executive Frank Clark, summed up the financial peril: “This is much like, in your personal lives, if you begin to have revenue shortfalls…you start living off your credit cards…And you can do it short-term, but sooner or later, those credit cards max out and you’ve got yourself in a very serious situation. That’s where CPS finds itself today: It is a budget that keeps us going today. It is not a sustainable approach long-term.” Indeed, the more than 8 percent hole in the adopted budget leaves little option but for Mayor Emanuel and new CPS Chief Forrest Claypool to try to get Gov. Rauner and the legislature to enact changes to CPS’ teacher pension obligations. On the reality front, CEO Vallas asked: “Who wants to send their kids to a bankrupt school district?” He warned that litigation and potential teacher strikes could “totally destabilize the system which means people would flock away from the system which means you would put the system in a financial death spiral,” adding: “At the end of the day bankruptcy is literally the kiss of death…that would decimate the finances so it’s simply not an option.” Chicago Civic Federation President Laurence Msall described the proposed CPS budget as “[Y]et another financially risky, short-sighted proposal and [one which] fails to provide any reassurance that Chicago Public Schools has a plan for emerging from its perpetual financial crisis…If stakeholders do not come together now to develop a multi-year plan, the Federation is deeply concerned that CPS could fail, with devastating consequences for the future of Chicago and Illinois.”

To Be or Not to Be. With Gov. Alejandro García Padilla theoretically set to release a fiscal stability and economic development plan for Puerto Rico’s future next Monday, there has been increased discussion of the cancellation of the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority’s (PRASA) bond offering, apparently out of apprehension with regard to global market conditions and an apparent lack of investor appetite for the municipal bonds—but without any official statement released on a change to the status of the sale, either from PRASA officials or from the Commonwealth. In addition, the U.S. territory has asked the U.S. Supreme Court for a ruling to overturn a ban which prevents Puerto Rico public agencies from restructuring, seeking permission for the right to restructure its debt — which has reached $72 billion — under its own quasi-bankruptcy law. The uncertainty came as Nuveen yesterday noted: “The Government Development Bank reports liquidity sufficient to operate until November…In addition, the Department of Justice has designated Puerto Rico a ‘high risk grantee,’ requiring Puerto Rico to account for how it spends federal funds going forward.” Yesterday, in addition, Moody’s added: The PRASA postponement of a $750 million bond offering after repeated delays “shows the difficult obstacles blocking Puerto Rico’s capital market access…Investor sentiment has deteriorated sharply since the commonwealth’s last public offering almost a year and a half ago. If underwriters can eventually complete the PRASA sale, it may signal a return to some degree of market access that would help maintain liquidity.” If anything, with Puerto Rico impinging on its self-set August 31st deadline to reveal its plan to restructure its staggering $72 billion debt, the island likely is opting not to move ahead with its controversial proposal to borrow an additional $750 million to pay for PRASA improvements—likely out of at least some apprehension it could not borrow the money — by issuing bonds — at an affordable interest rate. Adding to the messy situation, a working group, appointed by Gov. Garcia Padilla, has been trying to put a proposal together for several months; however, Puerto Rico’s main opposition party has dropped out of the group—raising grave doubts about any consensus. The PRASA debt issuance cancellation is more worrisome—as the utility provides essential services and is authorized to increase rates, within reason. Moreover, the utility’s bondholders have a first claim on its revenues: they are authorized to bring in a receiver to enforce collections.

A Post Muni Bankruptcy High? Recovering from municipal bankruptcy is like recovering from surgery. There are scars, but lessons learned. Thus, as post-bankrupt Stockton continues its comeback, City Attorney John Luebberke notes: “The City Council’s goal is to pursue the betterment of the community…Now that we’re out of bankruptcy, we can pursue some of these opportunities. Even in an era of constrained resources, we’re going to do what we can to improve the community.” One action, in which Mr. Luebberke is taking a lead role, is to enforce the city’s medical marijuana ordinance. Thus, post municipal bankruptcy Stockton last week filed two lawsuits last week aimed at preventing a pair of medical-marijuana dispensaries from operating in Stockton in violation of a city ordinance. While one has closed, the other—Collective 1950—will remain open while the city’s lawsuit is being adjudicated, with court dates not scheduled until mid-January. Mr. Luebberke said it is uncertain whether Stockton initially will seek a temporary injunction to immediately close Collective 1950 or choose to gain permanent injunctions from the court against Collective 1950 and Elevate Wellness. For Stockton, the issue of municipal enforcement of Stockton’s medical-marijuana ordinance is complicated by California’s “Compassionate Use Act,” which allows for marijuana use and possession for medical reasons—whilst Stockton’s ordinance is focused on preventing unregulated dispensaries from selling to minors and seeks to reduce the potential for “nuisances” and crimes associated with the presence of the facilities, according to Mr. Luebberke. According to Stockton’s lawsuits, the city can enforce its municipal code by “public nuisance abatement,” “civil injunction,” and “civil penalties of up to $1,000 per day of violation.”

First Chapter 9 since Detroit. Some of the first transatlantic passengers to come to America on the Arbella—passengers who left England in 1630 with their new charter–had a great vision. They were to be an example for the rest of the world in rightful living, or as then Gov. John Winthrop put it: “We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” But there is a different perspective from Hillview, the small Kentucky municipality which last week filed for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in the first municipal bankruptcy since Detroit, with Rick Cohen noting: “With its Chapter 9 filing, Hillview may have liabilities of around $100 million, against assets potentially only as much as $10 million…There may be a reason that Hillview found bankruptcy preferable to paying out, even at a lower rate than the court ordered, to the trucking company.” His thesis, referring to Moody’s report this month: “Municipal Bankruptcy Still Rare, but No Longer Taboo,” notes that Moody’s Senior VP Al Medioli appears to find that recent chapter 9 decisions have treated public pensioners “as a group above other creditors, and that further places pensions on a higher plane above all other liabilities, regardless of bond security or legal revenue pledge.” He notes that Kentucky confronts an unfunded pension liability of over $9 billion, making it the nation’s least well-funded state pension system, albeit he confesses there is insufficient information with regard to Hillview’s pension obligations that might have been affected by the municipality’s bankruptcy filing and potential proposed plan of debt adjustment.

Stately Oversight. In a brief released yesterday by Pew, the organization determined that New Jersey’s long track record of “strong state oversight” has, at least to date, been a key factor in fiscally protecting Atlantic City from being forced into municipal bankruptcy. Noting that the Garden State established its first fiscal oversight program in 1931, the report finds that the state has taken an active role to prevent municipal defaults and bankruptcies: Camden, before the state intervened with additional funds to help the city meet its obligations, came close in 1999 to becoming the first New Jersey municipality to file for Chapter 9 since Fort Lee in 1938, noting that New Jersey’s “tradition of intervention” is a stark contrast to other states such as California and Alabama which leave it up to local governments to resolve their own fiscal challenges, noting: “Most states tend to react to distress when it’s too late and not be proactive and that is not the case with New Jersey.” The report adds that Atlantic City also has benefited this year from New Jersey’s Municipal Qualified Bond Act, which allowed it to issue $43 million in general obligation bonds to cover repayment of a state loan for refinancing $12.8 million in bond anticipation notes. Atlantic City also received a $10 million increase in state funds this year under the state’s transitional aid program designed to assist distressed local governments. Pew cautioned, however, that while New Jersey has a strong record of avoiding municipal bankruptcies, no municipality in modern times has experienced close to the city’s 64 percent tax base decline, driven largely by casino closures from increased regional gambling competition, noting that the state still might be forced to “bail the city out” if it is to avoid filing for municipal bankruptcy—adding that such a rescue could be manageable given Atlantic City’s relatively small size.