The Road to Recovery from Municipal Bankruptcy

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November 12, 2015. Share on Twitter

The Road to Recovery from Municipal Bankruptcy. Jefferson County Commissioner David Carrington has put together a description what he labels “A Post-Bankruptcy Look at Jefferson County, Alabama” for a presentation at a Symposium on Modern Municipal Restructurings for Duke University this week to demonstrate the steps on the road out of what, at the time, was the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history in Alabama’s largest county. Noting the county’s diverse economy, with a GDP ranking it 137th out of 3,134 counties, and its home to the Innovation Depot, the largest business technology incubator in the Southeast, as well as its robust rail and interstate transportation network, he pointed to last year’s 2014 new residential permits (in dollars) greater than 58 of Alabama’s—or some 19.2% of all the state’s 67 counties combined, as well as the balanced budgets the county has adopted each and every year since U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Thomas Bennett approved the municipality’s plan of debt adjustment. He also noted the county’s slimmed payroll: the county today has 1,000 fewer employees than when, 25 months after it emerged from municipal bankruptcy on December 3, 2013, adding the County long-term debt has declined by some $1.5 billion—more than one-third, and that the County has made significant structural changes, including closing an inpatient (not impatient) hospital, sold the nursing home assets, closed all four of its satellite courthouses, and achieved something which must make Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel most jealous: a county pension has a funded ratio of 105.6%. He reports that audits, which were three years past due when this Commission took office in 2010, are now actually published ahead of schedule. Mayhap one of the most important accomplishments might be a more constructive relationship with the Alabama Legislature, which has passed a replacement 1‒cent sales tax bill, an action which allows the County to refinance its school construction debt, a key step to providing additional funding for county operations, economic development, schools and community development, in addition to county debt retirement. On the economic recover front, the Commissioner reports that more than 1,300 condominium units are planned or under construction, along with a $30 million mixed use development in Midtown anchored by a 34,000 square foot Publix grocery store—and that new historic building tax credits enacted by the Alabama legislature have elicited more than $200 million in local investments in a metro region now ranked as the Top City for Millennial Entrepreneurs by Thumbtack, in addition to being ranked 6th overall and 5th for economic development potential among the Top 10 mid‒sized North, Central and South American “Cities of the Future.”

A Detroit International 911. Daniel Howes, the gifted Detroit News columnist and associate business editor, wrote a terrific column yesterday about Dovie Maisel, an Israeli architect for a cause called United Hatzalah, a network of trained volunteers in that country which responds to calls for emergency medical care in Israel’s largest cities and across the country — noting that Mr. Maisel is in Detroit as part of an international effort to work with Mayor Mike Duggan to see if the model could be replicated, with Mr. Maisel noting: “We are not coming to take any jobs. We are the community. We are coming to help them:” Detroit and its EMT units are in preliminary discussions with United Hatzalah to see if the Israeli concept, which is scheduled to be launched this month in Jersey City, New Jersey, could also be adapted for the Motor City—an audacious effort which is envisioned to complement, rather than compete with what Mr. Howes describes as Detroit’s “stressed EMT units.” The partnership would train community volunteers. Potentially it would create a cadre of skilled technicians who could apply for EMT openings in Detroit or the metropolitan region—with Mr. Maisel noting, carefully, that Hatzalah volunteers do not replace professional EMT units in Israel; rather, certified according to Israeli national standards, they are, nevertheless, often able to respond to emergencies more quickly, because they are embedded in their communities—so that they are closer. Indeed, the concept has similarities to the remarkable public safety partnership in No. Virginia, where a unique agreement between its local governments ensures that the first 911 response will come from the closest responder—irrespective of jurisdiction—an agreement which can make the difference between life and death—and, secondarily—savings. According to Mr. Maisel, in Israel, volunteers are not paid, and victims are not charged.

As Mr. Howes wrote: “It’s an audacious idea for Detroit, one Mayor Mike Duggan dismissed as fanciful in a city of 139 square miles with a population pushing 700,000 — until he heard the pitch and compared it to the city’s need to improve its response to emergency calls,” noting that in Israel, “a polyglot of ethnicity, religion and intermittent tension effectively bridged by United Hatzalah…a country of less than 8 million, the volunteer organization fields 700 emergency calls a day, carries 3,000 volunteers nationwide, and boasts an average response time of three minutes, even less in more densely populated major cities.” The organization use a fleet of 450 “ambucyles” volunteers use to answer calls, and counts 2,550 volunteer-owned vehicles that are used to augment its rescue fleet, adding: “With a budget of $10 million, all of it privately funded, Hatzalah maintains 40 branches across the country organized into eight districts — its volunteers treat victims regardless of ethnicity, sex or religion, with an ‘ultimate goal to save lives, to take the community and train them at all levels.’” As Mr. Howes writes: “This may be the right cause at the right time for Detroit. It could answer a public need, could ease pressure on EMT units, could teach volunteers from the city’s neighborhoods marketable skills, could tap an entrepreneurial vein in a (Mayor) Duggan administration generally open to alternative solutions, and could be funded by individual private donors and foundations”—especially in a city beset by an emergency response rate being among the lowest in the country. In this fascinating cross border effort, the Detroit Medical Center and Henry Ford Health Systems’ chief of emergency medicine are working with the Mayor’s office to assess the implications of trying to implement this potential international partnership—one which Mr. Howes forthrightly describes as “fraught with legal and medical issues, as well as reassuring union EMTs that the effort is not a back-door gambit to eliminate their jobs.”

Looming Default. The U.S. territory of Puerto Rico could default at the end of the month on at least a portion of its scheduled debt service payments—an event which would constitute its second default, as the island’s liquidity pressures increase: it upcoming fiscal obligations consist primarily of $354.7 million of debt service on notes issued by the Government Development Bank or GDB, which has less incentive to make a payment of $81.4 million in debt service on non-general obligation-backed debt, as the payment pledge does not benefit from constitutional protections. The greater sustainability risk is that the GDB may be forced to default also on the $273.3 million of GDB notes which are backed by Puerto Rico’s full faith and credit general obligation guarantee—a default, after all, which would likely trigger legal action—but an event long foretold: as Puerto Rico, without access to the kind of federal bankruptcy options available to municipalities across the rest of the U.S., but with a seemingly disinterested Congress, will have little option but to not make full faith and credit bond payments that would jeopardize essential government services, consistent with the rapidly approaching reality that “the Commonwealth cannot service all of its debt as currently scheduled.” Puerto Rico’s ability to meet any of its obligations is deteriorating, even as, like Nero, Congress fiddles.

The territory, absent access to external sources of financing, projects a negative $29.8 million cash balance this month, growing to a deficit of $205 million by next month. Even though some recovery is projected in early 2016 with the enactment of emergency liquidity actions, actions which could include utilizing tax revenues currently assigned to one or more government authorities and further delaying tax refunds, Puerto Rico’s November Financial Information and Operating Data cash projection report does not include any availability of funds at the GDB, noting its cash resources “may be fully depleted by the end of calendar year 2015.” Puerto Rico’s inability to sustain sufficient liquidity to meet its operating and debt needs, absent extraordinary measures or outside help or legal recourse, is now expected to lead to additional defaults. Even though, a government aide stated that Puerto Rico will make its scheduled December payment on GO guaranteed GDB debt, such payment will decrease what might be available for an approximately $330 million GO debt service payment due on New Year’s Day: that is, as Bloomberg noted: “While we expect the commonwealth to use all available measures to prevent a default on constitutionally protected debt, it has not been making the monthly sinking fund payments required for the 1 January payment since July 2015. Instead, it will rely on cash on hand in the Treasury’s single cash account to make the debt service payment, though as noted above the projected November and December balances in the fund are negative. The commonwealth is not eligible to file for bankruptcy and the absence of a debt-restructuring framework heightens risks to creditors because it prevents the government from using tools generally available to distressed corporations and some municipalities.” For his part, Puerto Rico Gov. Alejandro García Padilla the day before yesterday warned that if the island’s municipal bondholders do not agree to new terms on their debt, he will choose to pay for the needs of the people before paying the Commonwealth’s creditors: “…if they do not negotiate and force me to choose between creditors and Puerto Ricans, I’m going to pay the Puerto Ricans.’”

Providing Essential Services. Governor Alejandro García Padilla has said he will consider cutting hours for public workers to keep essential governmental services and functions running; he has already closed some schools, delayed tax rebates, and suspended payments to government suppliers. The Obama administration, lacking any constructive Congressional role, has, via the Treasury Department, proposed an assistance package that would sustain the island’s medical system by increasing reimbursement rates for Medicaid, which serves 46 percent of Puerto Ricans and is paid at rates 70 percent lower than in any U.S. state, according to the Puerto Rico Healthcare Crisis Coalition, a group of doctors, hospitals, and insurers. The proposed package would also offer some bankruptcy protections to help the government restructure more than $70 billion in debt—more than any state’s except New York and California. In return, under the proposal, Congress would gain more say over the island’s finances. Congressional leaders, however, report they will not agree to provide either any fiscal assistance—or municipal bankruptcy authority—unless Puerto Rico provides audited financial statements giving a complete picture of its finances, a challenge given that the self-governing U.S. territory missed a self-imposed Oct. 31st deadline for submitting statements from FY2014 and has yet to prepare FY2015 documents. Congress appears to want to impose a different standard than used for states with regard to chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy or other U.S. corporations, with Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) of the Senate Judiciary Committee claiming he “is waiting for some good-faith effort from Puerto Ricans.”

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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 Fiscal Transparency & Democracy

October 21, 2015. Share on Twitter

Municipal Fiscal Transparency in Insolvency. With municipal election day in San Bernardino less than two weeks away, Deputy City Manager Nita McKay has reported to the Mayor and Council that a critical element for the city’s municipal bankruptcy case pending before U.S. federal bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury will be made more complete via the submission of its long-delayed audits, stating: “In meeting with the city’s auditor, Macias, Gini and O’Connell LLP (MGO), they have committed to us that they will have the fiscal year 2012-13 financial audit, including the independent auditor’s report on the assurance of whether the financial statements are free of material misstatement and whether they can be relied upon by the readers of those financial statements.” This is an older audit—long past due–of San Bernardino’s FY2012-13 financial statements—expected to be completed today and presented to the City Council and public on Monday, November 2nd—the day before the city’s voters go to the polls—an audit which could well provide important financial information not just for the city’s elected officials and candidates vying for seats on the City Council and the position of Treasurer, but also for the city’s many, many creditors in its municipal bankruptcy, its taxpayers, and voters. It will mark the first key fiscal information on the city’s finances in the wake of its filing for municipal bankruptcy in 2012—a municipal bankruptcy which has already lasted longer than any in U.S. history. The pre-election day audit release will not, however, include the way overdue FY2013-14 audit, although according to Ms. McKay, MGO will provide the Mayor, Council, and public a more detailed report a week from Monday. Ms. McKay advised the Mayor and Council the additional information could also be leading to the completion of still another important and inexplicably overdue single audit—a costly delay, because the California State Employment Development Department began, last February, withholding $125,000 a month in assistance to the city’s San Bernardino Employment and Training agency because of the city’s failure to complete its single audit report for the 2012-13 year—a report due in March of 2014. Auditor Jim Godsey, of MGO, however, appeared much less confident the single audit would be done this week; however, he said the financial statement audit likely will be completed by today, adding that he had requested additional information from City Hall in the wake of discovering that its latest response may not have answered all of MGO’s questions. Ms. McKay, who supervises the city’s finances under the city manager, told the Mayor and Council: “We provided all of the requested information…Then he (Mr. Godsey) said they sent a follow-up on questions that were still outstanding. I just received a follow-up email tonight, at 6:41 p.m., when I’m in this meeting, that they have further follow-up questions.” The back and forth has placed the city’s elected leaders-candidates in an awkward quandary with regard to how much to blame city staff and how much to blame MGO for the exceptional and costly delays.

Stay tuned: San Bernardino’s next City Council meeting falls on Monday November 2nd—the day before the city’s voters go to the polls to vote on the city’s future leadership.

The Desperate Price of Fiscal Unaccountability

October 14, 2015

Municipal 9-1-1. As U.S. District Court Judge Bernard Friedman noted late last month, the importance of Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy is to ensure “the resources to provide [its] residents with basic police, fire, and emergency medical services that its residents need for their basic health and safety.” It is that very apprehension about such essential, lifesaving services that has been at the heart of the municipal bankruptcy turmoil of Rhode Island’s Coventry Fire District—one of four fire districts in a municipality of 36,000 people—and where each district has its own governing authority—and where, currently, a private ambulance company had been negotiating with local officials to provide “temporary/emergency” coverage in the Coventry Fire District during its fiscal crisis—but has backed out after several of its employees threatened to resign. Kent County Superior Court Judge Brian P. Stern presided last week as the district remains essentially paralyzed—its bank account is frozen; its firefighters have not been paid for about 45 days; and Fire Board Chairman Frank Palin had contacted a private fire service, Coastline, in the event the court orders the board to hire a private ambulance company. Judge Stern has issued a stern [yes, a pun] warning that the Coventry Fire District is approaching a public safety crisis and residents could be without fire protection in the imminent future. The judge issued an order that state emergency and revenue officials be notified that fire and rescue protection might end soon.

Indeed, the district has been in crisis mode for years: In May 2013, Judge Stern had ordered the Central district liquidated after the board and the union representing firefighters failed to reach a contract agreement, directing the board to sell off property and lay off employees to pay off its debts. The board sold off equipment, shrunk staff, and closed three of five fire stations; however, before the job was completed, former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee stepped in and appointed the first of two receivers in May of 2014 to reorganize the department, and, if deemed necessary, to take the fire district into chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—as former Rhode Island Supreme Court Judge Robert Flanders had done after his appointment as a state Receiver with Central Falls or Chocolateville in August, 2011. Ergo, by the New Year, the Governor had named a receiver, Mark Pfeiffer, appointed by Governor Gina Raimondo, directing a municipal bankruptcy reorganization through the state Department of Revenue.

The duration, however, was short-lived: last month, Mr. Pfeiffer and state revenue officials announced they were giving up trying to reorganize in the face of fierce opposition to his proposed plans of seeking chapter 9 bankruptcy for the fire district—fiery opposition from both the town’s elected leaders and fire district’s leaders. That adamant opposition appeared to be inflamed by Mr. Pfeiffer’s proposed five-year plan of debt adjustment’s inclusion of major contract concessions from the firefighters’ union; but also its proposal of tax increases.

Thus, U.S. U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Diane Finkle has granted the state’s request to withdraw the Central Coventry Fire District from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, effectively restoring control of the district back to the district’s fire board, noting: “Face it, the taxpayers want a different model,” adding it was time for the courts to get out of the way and the parties to resolve their issues through a “political or legislative” process. Judge Finkle’s decision puts control of the fire district back into the hands of its board, some of whom have made no secret that they want more affordable fire protection and rescue services, possibly even using volunteers and private ambulance service. But how to get there is uncertain: the District’s board of directors has just a week left in which to come up with a plan and put it before district voters at an annual budget meeting on Oct. 19th: the board will have to decide if it wants to return to the idea of liquidating the district — as voters in the neighboring Coventry Fire District did recently — or negotiate another contract with local firefighters.

Ergo, with an accumulating debt to Coventry Credit Union of about $465,000, and an accrued deficit of more than $600,000, the fire district is in a fiscal Twilight Zone amid a broader governance question with regard to whether the current system of fire districts ought to be replaced by town-wide fire departments and the elimination of fire districts. Yet, to date, the Coventry Town Council has proved unwilling to become involved in the fire district’s seeming insolvency—notwithstanding its ultimate responsibility for public safety or the town’s citizen, non-binding referendum last June to liquidate the fire district. Indeed, the town’s inaction appeared to provoke, last July, a letter from the Rhode Island Department of Revenue to warn Coventry’s elected leaders, in which the acting Director wrote: “[T]he Department of Revenue is operating under the premise that the Town of Coventry will assume responsibility for the safety and well-being of its residents…We fully expect the town to be taking the necessary steps to ensure that it will be able to provide fire protection services to the area covered by the Coventry Fire District in the event the district suspends its operations.” Noting the state was ready to help under Rhode Island’s Fiscal Stability Act, which makes it clear that “any and all costs incurred pursuant to the state’s involvement under the Fiscal Stability Act become obligations that must be paid by the locality.” In fact, that appears to be part of the hot potato problem: were the town’s fire district to dissolve, the town’s taxpayers would be forced to finance their services.

In this uncertain municipal governance and fiscally distressed environment, the fire district board has one week in which to complete and present a plan to voters about how fire and rescue services will be financed and provided to residents of the district.

In a state half the size of many counties, the multiplicity of governing districts and municipalities raises grave questions of not just fiscal accountability, but also the seemingly intractable nature of the fire district’s own charter—a charter which provides that only fire district voters have the authority to determine whether and how to tax district residents – a power apparently greater than even a state-appointed receiver’s, despite legislation passed last year to clear the way. Indeed, it was just that charter provision which imposed such a wrinkle in Rhode Island’s efforts to step in: U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Diane Finkle last July, during a municipal bankruptcy status conference, warned that portions of the state’s proposed five-year plan of debt adjustment would likely need voter approval—especially for the last four years of the plan wherein the plan called for tax increases once the state receiver had stepped aside and decision-making powers reverted to the fire district’s board—one of four in a town of about 35,000—and one where the Coventry Town Council has repeatedly refused to extend any further fiscal assistance to the district which already is in debt to the town for $300,000.

Fiscal Chaos & Municipal Bankruptcy

Columbus Day, 2015

Fiscal Chaos and Municipal Bankruptcy. In the wake of U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury warning last week that the bankrupt City of San Bernardino will have to produce much more extensive fiscal information for the federal court if it is to demonstrate its commitment avoid insolvency and emerge from municipal bankruptcy, the city’s inability to even complete two long overdue audits of the municipality’s finances appears to be still another ominous omen. But, at a hearing last week, Mayor Carey Davis reported that city staff was reviewing a draft of the audit for FY2012-13, adding that a post-election public presentation of said audit in November would not be “not unrealistic.” Mayor Davis noted that citizens and city taxpayers might even expect a second audit relatively soon after that. However, any such bright promises appeared to be belied by the tabling of a scheduled discussion of the audits at the hearing—a tabling without explanation — a tabling, moreover, which led Councilman John Valdivia to accuse the Mayor and majority of the Council of “shutting out the public,” even as City Attorney Gary Saenz advised Councilmember Valdivia that such comments were not allowed once a tabling motion had been made. The resulting confusion could hardly be a sign to U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury that this is a city intensely focused on getting itself shipshape—or even serious about its responsibility to its own taxpayers and citizens—notwithstanding Mayor Davis’ follow-up statement that “[T]he responsibility rests with me…I take responsibility (for) the need to garner support from the (City) Council and also to have the city function at a higher level. The Finance Department is just one of our departments that had an exodus of personnel in August 2012, after the bankruptcy filing.”

Fiscal Incompetence? The city’s trail of auditing failures dates back to its 2012-13 fiscal year, that is, the municipal fiscal year prior to its filing for municipal bankruptcy in what has now stretched to the longest municipal bankruptcy ever—and one that appears to be regressing, rather than advancing. Moreover, the inability to complete the older audit has meant the rail cars of successive audits are now backed up, even as the kinds of fiscal reports requisite to the city’s plan of debt adjustment due to Judge Jury falls further and further behind. The fiscal reporting failures not only affect its fiscal credibility, but also its budget: the California Employment Development Department (EDD), one year ago, halted funding to the city’s Employment and Training Agency because of the city’s failure to complete the city’s single audit report for the 2012-13 year, a cutoff which triggered city make-up expenditures of $125,000 a month—funds which a bankrupt city can ill afford, with the state agency noting the cutoff came only in the wake of a series of warnings and deadlines, including a final notice from Dennis Petrie, deputy director of the Workforce Service Branch of the California Employment Development Department: “While we are certainly aware of the challenges faced by the city as a result of its bankruptcy filing, the EDD has a fiduciary responsibility to take this action until such time that the city fulfills its legal obligations by filing the delinquent report.” Unsurprisingly, the seeming incompetence has become a factor in the next month’s municipal elections—or, as candidate Scott Beard at a candidate forum last Thursday night put it: “I think we all suffer from the frustration of not knowing where the money is.”

One might reasonably ask not just where, but also how much: the audits, to be produced by Macias Gini & O’Connell, or MGO, which also does audits for CalPERS, have come at a steep price: last March the City Council agreed to pay MGO another $490,000 — or more than double the firm’s original cost estimate. The increasing tab for what appears to be non-performance are, no doubt, further complicated by the auditing firm’s apprehensions that it will never, as a bankruptcy creditor, receive what the city has promised to pay. But, with the nearing city election, the situation has been further complicated by politics. Councilmember Fred Shorett claims that the mayor’s continuing to meet directly with the auditors, in defiance of requests from the city manager and city attorney, has exacerbated the situation—even as he made a motion to end discussion of the auditing fiasco before it began on the advice of City Attorney Gary Saenz—advice Mr. Saenz told the Council he had not provided—to avoid raising trouble in bankruptcy court. City Attorney Saenz noted that not only had he not done so, but that if he had, it would only have been offered in closed session. Mr. Saenz added: “I can tell you, however, that hope and the expectation is — and I just spoke with our deputy city manager, Nita McKay — she indicates to me that the hope and expectation is the audits will be ready for the first [Council] meeting in November…And she [Ms. McKay] did not represent this to me, but my understanding is that the ’13-14 audit will be done within a couple of weeks or a month after that.”

None of this debate and discussion can be comforting to Judge Jury, who has made clear her frustration and apprehension with regard to whether the city’s leaders can be trusted to present her federal bankruptcy court with convincing data and information to demonstrate the city’s proposed plan of debt adjustment can be submitted anytime soon, much less provide her comfort that such a plan would not collapse back into a second bankruptcy in a few years.

A Steepening Road to Municipal Recovery

October 9, 2015

Steeper Road to Recovery—where failure is not an option: U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury yesterday warned San Bernardino that the city will have to produce much more extensive information than the 77-page disclosure statement it has submitted if it is to gain the federal court’s approval of any plan of debt adjustment—the critical hurdle if the city is to emerge from the longest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. For the city, which has been attempting to put together its proposed plan of debt adjustment now for a longer period than any other applicant municipality for chapter 9 bankruptcy, the stern warning comes less than a month before looming municipal elections—a hurdle itself—and increases apprehensions about the city’s ability to meet any deadlines—and at what cost. Yesterday’s hearing on the adequacy of the disclosure statement the municipality had filed unsurprisingly drew objections from the city’s multiple creditors, undoubtedly raising further questions with regard to the city’s progress. For instance, the attorney for creditor Ambac Assurance Corp., the company which is the securer for San Bernardino’s $50 million in pension municipal obligation bonds, testified in the courtroom of his apprehensions, noting: “[I]t is pretty clear the city plans to pay unsecured (creditors) the least it can get away with, not the most it can afford…They’re trying to disclose a plan that is fundamentally flawed.”

For her part, Judge Jury raised mayhap a much more fundamental apprehension: can the bankrupt city present the federal court with convincing data and information to demonstrate the city’s proposed plan of debt adjustment would ensure the city would not collapse back into a second bankruptcy in a few years, noting: “I don’t really think it’s in anybody’s objection, but the public perception — the media perception –— of the two cities with confirmed (bankruptcy exit) plans, that being Vallejo and Stockton, is that they’re already in trouble because they didn’t impair CalPERS,” referring to the decision, a proposal also made by San Bernardino, to pay every cent of what the municipality owes to the CalPERS as those costs grow. Judge Jury added: “I don’t think there is adequate discussion of how much those raises are going to be. I have heard other things, I think in this court, that it is an exponentially increasing number that will have to be paid in order to keep retirement plans intact. There comes a point where no matter what I confirm it will fail.” San Bernardino’s actuaries project as part of the bankruptcy exit plan that $29 million a year will go to CalPERS by 2023-24—or an amount more than double its current annual payment. Ergo, for Judge Jury, the grave question is from whence will cometh those funds?

Equally unsurprisingly, San Bernardino’s creditors—all of whom understand that every day further into what has become the longest municipal bankruptcy ever—recognize that each additional day without an approved plan, the less resources remain to be divvied up amongst the city’s thousands of creditors. That apprehension led the attorney for creditor EEPK, a Luxembourg-based bank, which is the holder of San Bernardino’s municipal bonds secured by Ambac, to tell Judge Jury the city needed, in its proposed plan of debt adjustment, to show the value of properties held by the city and why many of them could not be sold to pay creditors—and explain why the city was not pursuing municipal tax increases—reminding the federal court of the critical and daunting fiscal action Stockton’s leadership took to anchor not just its plan of debt adjustment, but also its long-term recovery—or, as he told the court: “The city’s explanation for why it’s not pursuing some substantial potential revenue sources which require voter approval is ‘it would be hard…’ It’s not enough, when you’re paying creditors 1 cent on the dollar, to say ‘It’s hard.’ ” It is difficult to imagine Judge Jury could have emerged from the session with much optimism; nevertheless, she obtained a commitment from the city that it would provide more comprehensive information and responses by the day before Thanksgiving—at which point creditors will respond in writing, leading to still another day—and ever mounting costs—to assess the adequacy of the financial information provided by the city. Judge Jury also informed the parties she is trying to allow San Bernardino to exit bankruptcy as soon as is prudent: “I do intend to keep this pace moving, but not at a pace that is unreasonable.”

The Steep Road to Recovery from Municipal Bankruptcy

October 7, 2015

The Hard, but Critical Road to Recovery & Fiscal Sustainability. Few municipalities, especially compared to other corporations, go into bankruptcy. But for those that do, they do not disappear, as is the outcome in many corporate bankruptcies; rather they do not miss a beat with regard to providing essential services, even as they began the long and expensive process of putting Humpty Dumpty back together again by means of assembling a plan of debt adjustment in negotiations with their thousands upon thousands of creditors. While each of those plans must receive approval from a federal bankruptcy court—and the respected and respective judges do look to see that such proposed plans incorporate long-term fiscal sustainability provisions; nevertheless, those municipalities are not starting on a level playing field. So the question with regard to their ability to fully recover remains a story to be learned—because never before in American history has there been such a spate of major municipal bankruptcies. Ergo, unsurprisingly, Detroit—with its plan approved and the Mayor and Council restored to governance authority—in effect starts at a disadvantage compared to other municipalities: its road to climb is steep.

There is good news, however: a new report, “Estimating Home Equity Impacts from Rapid, Targeted Residential Demolition in Detroit, Michigan: Application of a Spatially-Dynamic Data System for Decision Support,” from the Skillman Foundation, Rock Ventures LLC, and Dynamo Metrics has found that the valuations of homes within 500 feet of a demolition funded by the U.S. Department of Treasury’s $100 million in Hardest Hit Funds have increased by an estimated 2.4 percent between December 2014 and May 2015. Indeed, blight removal has been a core element of any route to Motor City recovery: in May of 2014, the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force — which includes representatives from Detroit Public Schools, U-SNAP-BAC Inc. and Rock Ventures — identified more than 78,000 properties in need of sales, repair, or demolition. That is, federal help seems to have sparked a critical revival of affected assessed property values and, ergo, the Motor City’s revenues: the report found demolitions have increased the value of surrounding homes within 500 feet by 4.2 percent, or an average of $1,106. Citywide, that amounts to an increase in home values of more than $209 million. The bad news is that even as this innovative federal program is beginning to demonstrate its ability to contribute to Detroit’s comeback, the assistance in financing the demolition is drying up.

The report also suggests that combined with other efforts by the city—efforts which include code enforcement and sales of public assets such as side lots—have also begun to make telling fiscal differences: the value of homes nearby increased by 13.8 percent, or an average of $3,634. Citywide, that amounts to an increased assessed property value of about $410 million—or as Mayor Mike Duggan describes it: “The numbers are extraordinary,” noting that eliminating blight has allowed “good homes and good vacant homes” to increase in value: from January of last year until last, 5,812 blighted structures in the city were demolished thanks to funding from the federal “Hardest Hit” fund—a now drying up fund focusing nearly $8 billion in post Great Recession assistance foreclosure prevention in 18 states, including Michigan, with where Michigan’s share was over $498 million, of which Detroit received just over one fifth. Because those funds will be depleted this year, Mayor Duggan is planning to travel to Washington soon to meet with White House officials and others to lobby for the next round of money—especially since the demolitions to date have only addressed some 10 percent of the city’s blight.

Good Gnus. In its review of Chicago’s proposed FY2016 Budget, Kroll Bond Rating Agency (KBRA) reports it believes Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s budget includes “reasonable actions for closing the projected fiscal 2016 operating shortfall, and represents clear progress in confronting the challenges of unfunded pension liabilities.” The Budget closes the city’s FY2016 gap via proposed savings and reforms, efficiencies, and significantly increased property taxes from a four-year phased-in $543 million increase in the property tax levy, earmarked to specifically address rising police and fire pension liabilities. The rating agency wrote it believes the choice of a property tax levy increase demonstrates the Chicago’s political will to craft an effective and sustainable solution. Nevertheless, the agency noted there still remain numerous unresolved issues, which could potentially undermine budgetary goals: first, will the City Council, in an election year, approve the Mayor’s proposed budget? Second, the big shoulder city is relying on State action to increase the size of the home-owners property tax exemption, which would exempt homes valued at less than $250,000 from the increase—this a state legislature which is locked in a stalemate with the Governor. The phased-in property levy increases assume that Senate Bill 777, which reforms police and fire pension funding, will be enacted into law—and not be rejected by the Illinois Supreme Court. If not enacted, Chicago’s police and fire pension funding obligation would immediately rise from approximately $328 million to $550 million, and the city would have to identify and act on additional funding sources.

Not the Odor of Verbena. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has settled its almost six-year-old pay-to-pay case against two ex-JPMorgan bankers involved in hold-your-nose, soured sewer deals that thrust Jefferson County, Ala., into municipal bankruptcy. The SEC, according to a notice filed in federal court this week, reported it had reached agreement with Charles LeCroy and Douglas MacFaddin via mediation which resolves securities fraud charges against the two, albeit the actual terms of the settlement will not be made public until it is presented to the full commission for approval, with the independent federal securities agency advising the federal district court that, if the Commission approves the report, that would end litigation on the case. The long, simmering case dates back just about six years to when the SEC filed a civil suit alleging that Messieurs LeCroy and MacFaddin had improperly arranged payments to local broker-dealers in Alabama to assure that certain Jefferson County commissioners would award $5 billion in county sewer bond and swap deals to JPMorgan. The SEC suit, which charged that the two men “privately agreed with certain county commissioners to pay more than $8.2 million in 2002 and 2003 to close friends of the commissioners who either owned or worked at local broker-dealers,” sought declaratory and permanent injunctions against the two for federal securities law violations, as well as disgorgement of all profits they received as a result of their legal misbehavior, plus interest. The SEC had brought the suit simultaneously with its settlement of municipal securities fraud charges with the investment bank. Without admitting or denying the SEC’s charges, JPMorgan agreed to pay $75 million in penalties eventually turned over to Jefferson County, and to forfeit more than $647 million of claimed swap termination fees. In January, the SEC sought summary judgment in the case, leading U.S. District Court Judge Abdul Kallon to determine the five-year-old case was appropriate for mediation—this all in a case involving some nearly two dozen municipal elected officials, contractors, and county employees involved in Jefferson County’s sewer bond sales or construction of the sewer system who were jailed for bribery and fraud—and which led to what was, at the time, a filing for the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

Wither Its Future—and Who Decides? Facing decades of structural budget gaps and unsustainable legacy costs, the City of Pittsburgh entered two forms of state oversight in 2004. In the subsequent decade, that engagement appeared to have been key to a turnaround in the city’s structural deficits, leading to annual positive fund balances, as the then-partnership helped restructure its crushing debt load, streamline an outsized government, and earn a triple-notch bond rating upgrade. Nevertheless, the Steel City still carried a $380 million pension liability, leaving questions with regard to whether the city was ready to graduate from state oversight – especially given the extra relief from restrictive state laws that the state’s Act 47 provides to city officials. Now that state-local tension seems to be back, with the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority (ICA), the city’s overseer, an authority state lawmakers formed in 2004 to oversee Pittsburgh’s finances, at a time the city was on the precipice of municipal bankruptcy, claiming it is justified by state law in withholding Pennsylvania gambling revenue from the city (ICA is invoking Act 71 of 2004, a state statute which grants, according to ICA, has “exclusive control” of the gaming revenues dedicated for Pittsburgh, the only second-class city under the commonwealth’s system of categorizing cities.), because, as the Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority’s Henry Sciortino, reports: “They haven’t met certain benchmarks.” Indeed, the former amity is now gone: Pittsburgh is suing the state agency in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, accusing it of illegally withholding $10 million in annual gambling host city revenue funds the past two years related to the Rivers Casino—a costly dispute triggered by state agency claims that Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto is backing off his commitment of $86.4 million to fully fund current payments to retirees – separate from the city’s overall unfunded pension liability estimated in the hundreds of millions. In addition, Mayor Peduto requested that Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale conduct an audit of the ICA—a request putting Mr. DePasquale now in a most awkward position in the wake of the city’s decision to file suit. Moreover, the city-state dispute—itself now becoming a costly court battle—arises even as the city faces daunting pension challenges: returns on the city’s employee pension funds have, according to the State Auditor, deteriorated from 16.3% in fiscal 2013 to 5.5% this year, reflecting the slowdown in financial markets, who estimates the city’s funds’ assets to be $675 million versus liabilities of almost $1.2 billion. Indeed, the Public Employee Retirement Commission considers Pittsburgh’s pension fund “moderately distressed.” In a letter to Gov. Tom Wolf and top legislative leaders a week ago, ICA Chairman Nicholas Varischetti called pension underfunding “one of the most serious barriers to Pittsburgh’s fiscal stability.” That statement comes in the wake of Pittsburgh’s efforts just five years ago to avoid a state takeover of its pension funds by earmarking nearly $750 million in parking revenues over three decades to prop its funding level above a state-mandated 50%. Keeping this growing state-local dispute constructive could matter: over the last decade, Pittsburgh has received 11 upgrades, most recently in early 2014 when S&P elevated its general obligation rating to A-plus, and Moody’s, just a year ago, revised its outlook to positive on the steel city’s general obligation bonds. The city’s suit alleges the ICA has been illegally withholding $10 million in annual gambling host city revenue funds the past two years, whilst, for its part, ICA officials claim Mayor Peduto is backing off his commitment of $86.4 million to fully fund current payments to retirees. Indeed, in an epistle to Gov. Tom Wolf, ICA Chairman Nicholas Varischetti wrote that pension underfunding was “one of the most serious barriers to Pittsburgh’s fiscal stability.” The state-local tension over the city’s pension liabilities is hardly new–five years ago Pittsburgh avoided a state takeover of its pension funds by earmarking nearly $750 million in parking revenues over 30 years to prop its funding level above a state-mandated 50%; however, once again, state apprehension is on the uptick that the city is, as one expert, David Fiorenza, a Villanova School of Business professor and a former chief financial officer of Radnor Township, said: Pa., said “[O]nce again the municipality is only fixing the leak and not curing the flooding problem of pension debt and other unfunded liabilities looming around like an albatross,” adding that he believes the state ICA can be a force to persuade cities to devote gambling revenues to other areas of the budget, such as pensions.