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.”

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.’

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.

October 1, 2015

The Stress of Dysfunctional Governance in Municipal Bankruptcy. Last week, at a Governing panel I moderated in Washington, D.C., one of the questions I posed had to do with governance in municipal bankruptcy—a question I asked first of Kevyn Orr, the former Emergency Manger who steered Detroit through its long and complex process into and out of municipal bankruptcy: the differences and perspectives with regard to municipal bankruptcies in states which provide that the elected municipal leaders remain, such as in California and Alabama, versus the different laws in states such as Michigan and Rhode Island, where the Governor may opt to bring on a receiver (Rhode Island) or Emergency Manager, such as Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan did in appointing Mr. Orr. In Central Falls’ municipal bankruptcy, the Governor named former state Supreme Court Judge Robert G. Flanders as Receiver – where, on day one, he ordered the Mayor and Council out of City Hall – and assumed total authority. Similarly, in Michigan, under the state’s law, Gov. Rick Snyder appointed Mr. Orr as the Motor City’s Emergency Manager—whereupon he took full power and authority for governance of the city—immediately upon his appointment. It was only on the respective federal bankruptcy court approvals of the two plans of debt adjustment that elected leaders (newly elected in the case of Central Falls) that governance reverted to those elected by the people. As we have noted, the model wherein a municipality’s elected officials remain in authority can work (please note, however, continuing challenges below in Jefferson County, Alabama), and in Stockton, California. But democracy in a crisis can sometimes be messy. Witness the imbroglio which is occurring in San Bernardino—now the city with the longest period in municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, where recent events are painting a dismal picture of the city’s ability to operate and govern: there, in a late night and controversial decision, the city’s key consultant—who San Bernardino Sun insightful writer Ryan Hagen describes as “Arguably the only person with direct knowledge of much of the city’s complex redevelopment process,” was removed after serving nine “sometimes-controversial years at City Hall.” The removal of Jim Morris, who had been chief of staff during his father’s, Pat Morris, service as mayor, involved his work as a consultant on the dissolution of the city redevelopment agency: the issue before the Council was whether to extend his contract. Notwithstanding a 4-3 majority supporting a re-up of the contract, and a clear consensus by much of the city’s leadership, City Manager Allen Parker, City Attorney Gary Saenz, and Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown, who believe Mr. Morris was invaluable—Mayor Carey Davis vetoed any extension of his contract—citing concerns with regard to the delay in completing redevelopment tasks, particularly a long-range property management plan which had been projected to be finished last April, but which was not submitted to the Council until five months later. Mayor Davis noted: “If we’re paying for performance, it’s clear that maybe some of the delay was because concentration was taken from the (redevelopment agency) to city items.” According to Mr. Hagen, both messieurs Morris and Parker say the city made a plan which will allow it to meet state-imposed deadlines by moving in other people, with Mr. Parker writing: “Deputy City Manager, Bill Manis, who has been overseeing the team, will move into a more prominent role to continue the RDA dissolution process…Bill comes with extensive RDA experience and will work in tandem with the internal team and consultant, Urban Futures.” Nevertheless, the disruption comes as the city’s municipal bankruptcy creditors are making discovery requests—requests significantly above and beyond the normal obligations of a municipality, and requests which are increasing the workload for an already severely strained staff—a staff, after all, trying to operate and provide essential services, even as it is trying to marshal the resources to complete a plan of debt adjustment to the increasingly impatient U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury. All of this chaos, moreover, comes as voters are set a month from tomorrow to vote in the city’s election.

The Roots of Municipal Bankruptcy. According to the Detroit News, federal officials are investigating state Rep. Alberta Tinsley-Talabi (D-Detroit) who was a member of the Detroit City Council from 1993 to 2009 and served as a Wayne County Commissioner from 1987 to 1990. The investigation involves a bribery and kickback scandal which occurred during her years’ of service both as a Detroit Councilwoman, as well as a Detroit pension fund trustee. The News reports that Rep. Tinsley-Talabi’s nonprofit organization received at least one bribe from a businessman, during the time she was on a Detroit pension fund, and a time when her City Council campaign received thousands of dollars more from businessmen involved in a widespread corruption case, according to federal prosecutors. The allegations involving Rep. Tinsley-Talabi came out yesterday during the sentencing of a businessperson who had paid bribes to several former Detroit officials: no charges have been made yet in the widespread, years’-long federal probe of corruption at the Motor City’s City Hall, albeit there have been 38 convictions related to Detroit’s public pension funds, including former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and former City Council President Monica Conyers. The News also reported that federal court records clarify Rep. Tinsley-Talabi’s alleged involvement in a criminal case—a case which also has ensnared her former chief of staff, George Stanton, who will be sentenced today in federal court after agreeing to a plea bargain with prosecutors under which he agreed to secretly record conversations with Rep. Tinsley-Talabi and others. During her elected service in Detroit, Rep. Tinsley-Talabi, as a city pension trustee, had responsibilities to both oversee and help approve and select investments of said funds. She has founded a nonprofit group, Mack Alive, which serves the east side of Detroit. According to the News, in 2006 and 2007, when a Georgia businessman sought pension fund investments for his firm, Onyx Capital Advisers, and a real estate investment in the Turks and Caicos Islands on behalf of another company, PR Investment Group; the Detroit Police & Fire Pension Board, according to court records. On Dec. 21, 2006, then pension board member Tinsley-Talabi and other pension board members conditionally approved lending $10 million—an approval to which Detroit’s general retirement board approved another $10 million the following month. Now federal prosecutors allege that, within months, then Councilmember Dixon was handing out cash to city officials: “Evidence shows that Dixon gave the following things of value to Detroit and Pontiac pension trustees and staff in order to buy influence,” listing more than $244,000 worth of bribes, including a $1,000 check from Mr. Dixon to Ms. Tinsley-Talabi’s nonprofit on Aug. 22, 2007—perfectly timed just one day after the $1,000 donation. Further, the federal motion notes she introduced a favorable motion just prior to receipt of a $3,400 re-election campaign donation. In 2007, from Mr. Dixon—followed, just six days later by the Police & Fire pension fund’s grant of her request to have $1.15 million wired to Mr. Dixon’s firm, Onyx Capital Advisors. By December, 2007, the charges note Mr. Dixon paid for “City Official B,” referring to former Councilmember Tinsley-Talabi, to travel to the Turks and Caicos Islands—a trip which, the prosecutors note, two months later appeared to have some sway on her fellow pension trustees for a modified investment with PR Investment Group in the Turks and Caicos Islands, according to meeting minutes and court records. Ms. Tinsley-Talabi did not, however, vote on the proposed investment at the February meeting: she had left the pension board in December 2007 — the same month she took the Caribbean trip. The development came as Mr. Dixon yesterday earned a trip not to the Turks and Caicos, but, rather—in return for embezzling some $3.1 million from Detroit and Pontiac public pension funds, free lodging in federal prison for three and a half years for his role in the scandal, with the court finding he had paid $244,500 in bribes to former pension trustees, including the former Detroit City Councilmember and pension Board member—bribes for agreements which ended up losing the three public pension funds their entire investment of $23.8 million, according to the federal prosecutors. In all, Detroit’s pension fund appears to have suffered more than $95 million in a series of corrupt deals awarded to businessmen who bribed city public officials with cash, trips, free drinks, and other valuable items.

Municipal Bankruptcy Ain’t Over Until It’s Over. Jefferson County, Alabama, which—prior to Detroit—emerged from the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history, is finding that approval of its plan of debt adjustment by the U.S. bankruptcy court is not the last full measure: the county and its elected leaders confront a challenge or appeal to its plan of debt adjustment, creating hurdles to the County’s ability to issue municipal bonds. In addition, some restive opponents of the county’s approved plan of debt adjustment are also challenging court validation of a bond refunding—a refunding approved this year by the Alabama legislature—to provide the county with a source of new revenue. Such refunding revenues are needed to replace some 50 percent of the $70 million the County lost when a court struck down its occupational and business tax five years ago—a court decision which triggered the layoff of nearly 1,000 employees and significant cuts in public services. Jefferson County had filed for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in the wake of its inability to restructure $3.2 billion in its accumulated sewer debt. Under its court approved plan of debt adjustment, essential public services have been restored—but the county’s ability to issue bonds for key infrastructure investments and rehabilitation has been beset by ongoing legal challenges—or as the Bond Buyer’s inimitable Shelly Sigo writes: “[T]here isn’t funding for pent-up building, road and bridge repairs or improvements,” or County Commission President Jimmie Stephens noted yesterday: “We are getting the job done, but desperately need this revenue to improve the quality of life for our citizens…Our county buildings have deferred maintenance that needs to be addressed.” Notwithstanding, in a brief filed this week by Jefferson County tax assessor Andrew Bennett, state Reps. John Rogers and Mary Moore, and county resident William Muhammad, four of the 13 persons appealing Jefferson County’s plan of debt adjustment, claim Jefferson County’s claims are “belied by substantial fund balances” of $155 million in its FY2014 audit. In response, Commission President Stephens notes: “For anyone to state that the county does not need the funds, simply has not looked at our decaying infrastructure or simply doesn’t care,” with his statement coming as the County is planning its return to the municipal bond market for the first time since its successful exit from bankruptcy—planning to refund up to $595.5 million of warrants backed by a dedicated one-cent sales tax. Such a sale would provide for a refund a portion of the $1.05 billion of limited obligation warrants Jefferson County issued in 2004 and 2005, backed by the same dedicated sales tax—with the plan set so that the county could dedicate the proposed 40-year refunding plan to provide use sales tax proceeds to pay debt service, with excess tax revenues dedicated to Jefferson County’s general fund and unrelated county expenses such as schools, the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority, and the Birmingham Zoo—a plan authorized by the state legislature and signed by Alabama Governor Robert Bentley—but a plan for which the has filed a suit in Jefferson County Circuit Court in order to validate the refunding warrants and the state legislation—especially in the face of challenges that the law is unconstitutional.

The County’s fiscal challenges already confront legal hurdles from the two cases challenging its successful emergence from municipal bankruptcy—one by Jefferson County resident Keith Shannon, the other by Mssrs. Bennett, Rogers, Moore and Muhammad. In both cases, who argue the state legislation is unconstitutional. In addition, the attorney, financial advisor, and former broker-dealer, behind the challenge has also questioned Jefferson County’s need for new revenue, claiming if the proposed sales and use tax revenue is needed to fund infrastructure needs now, then the county misrepresented its insolvency before U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Thomas Bennett and its ability to pay the school warrant debt when it filed for bankruptcy, claiming: “The county having…$156 million in excess fund balance to pay school warrants and $155 million in unrestricted cash shows the bankruptcy was filed fraudulently,” he wrote in an email to the Bond Buyer. Ms. Sigo notes:

“Some market experts have suggested that Jefferson County faces a rocky return to the market given political undertones that led to its Chapter 9 bankruptcy, while others have suggested that any future deal might require extra credit support. The school warrants to be refunded later this year were untouched in the county’s bankruptcy. The case appealing the county’s bankruptcy exit involves only the county’s sewer debt. That case is continuing to move through the briefing stage before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. Jefferson County has asked the appellate panel to overturn a lower court judge’s ruling, which could result in revocation of a key credit factor supporting $1.8 billion in sewer refunding warrants the county issued in 2013 to write down $1.4 billion in related debt. The county’s reorganization plan authorizes the bankruptcy court to retain jurisdiction over the 40 years that the sewer warrants remain outstanding to ensure that the county provides adequate funds to pay debt service.”

September 30, 2015

The Stress of Democracy & Governance—and the Recurring Sins of the Past. Municipal bankruptcy and oncoming municipal elections make for governance challenges and hard votes. So it is that the San Bernardino City Council—by a one vote majority—passed a sewer rate increase (residents’ monthly sewer bills will rise $7.15 a month, starting in October–and increase more in future years). The narrow margin—a vote despite strong citizen opposition, swill trigger water and sewer collection fee increases, the first since 2010, which the department reported are necessary to avoid a sewer disaster in a system where holes have already been found and remain unfixed — and that is with only 20 percent to 40 percent of the 500 miles of pipes inspected. As the municipality’s water and sewer officials testified, the increase is critical, because the city’s “tires” could blow at any time, and replacing them after a blowout would only be more expensive. Moreover, as City Attorney Gary Saenz warned the elected leaders, not protecting and maintaining the system as required could lead to their prosecution and potential incarceration. Unsurprisingly, with elections looming now in less than five weeks, a stream of city residents (voters) urged the Council to reject the increase, claiming the rate increase was too much—and based on too little evidence. The ensuing 4-3 vote, nevertheless, means that the city’s sewer collection fee will rise about from $4 to $9 a month beginning tomorrow, then in July of every year until 2020, when sewer collection fees will total $11.47 for a single-family residence. The sewage-treatment fee, meanwhile, will rise 11.6 percent, to $20.65, effective tomorrow. By 2020, the total fee for single-family residences’ sewer collection and sewer treatment combined is projected to increase more than 50 percent from $22.50 to $35.32 a month. In adjusting the rates, the bankrupt city is restricted by California law, Proposition 218, which bars a municipality for setting or imposing fees higher than the cost of providing the service and restricts the revenues to a segregated account so that they may only be expended for related services. Notwithstanding the California law, prior to the city’s filing for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy three years’ ago; in the lead-up to its 2012 municipal bankruptcy filing — San Bernardino officials who are now out of office did provided explicit details on the falsification of municipal budget documents—an admission which, at the time, led the then City Council members to delay a vote on whether to declare a state of fiscal emergency. (In California, a city must declare a state of fiscal emergency – the inability to pay its bills within 60 days without bankruptcy protection – to avoid mediation and other steps which would otherwise be required under state law.) That 11th hour admission—an admission which appeared to indicate criminal misconduct, and clearly triggered a need to consult with constituents, ended up forcing a delay in the city’s decisions with regard to the declaration of fiscal emergency and a resolution formally directing staff to file for Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy—an admission and action coming in the wake of the City Attorney’s warning that 13 of 16 years of budget documents were falsified—falsifications which officials believed was related to the borrowing from restricted funds – funds specifically legally restricted only for certain purposes – in order to meet payroll and other expenses during months when cash was short. Such undercover borrowings were then repaid as the revenues flowed in later in the year. The city finance skullduggery, combined with a failure to produce city audits for fiscal years 2012-13 or 2013-14, audits which are way overdue but expected, perhaps as early as October, understandably raised hackles—or, as Councilmember Henry Nickel put it, in opposing the rate increase: “If you have money meant for tires and spend it on something else, that’s malfeasance…Until we have the audits in place, you do not have my support. We need to make sure we don’t re-enact sins of the past.” Unsurprisingly, with Councilmembers increasingly focused on next month’s election, supporters of the rate increase accused opponents of demagoguery, or, as Councilmember James Mulvihill, one of the two current Councilmembers on the ballot in November, put it: “Watch out for the politician that wants to manipulate your emotion and not solve the problem you’ll have, anyway,” said. Fellow Councilmember Nickel, the only other incumbent on November’s ballot, opposed the request.

Water and sewer issues—as we have observed in the nation’s two largest municipal bankruptcies—Detroit and Jefferson County—are critical pieces of the puzzle—or, in this instance, as former San Bernardino Councilmember Susan Longville warned prior to the vote: “You have an infrastructure nightmare waiting to happen,” albeit she said, any increase should come after a presentation that more effectively demonstrated the need for an increase.

Mixing Governance & Business. Serving as a municipal elected leader is a thankless task and never-ending challenge. It is a grave responsibility. The scrutiny of television and other media can only increase that pressure—especially if your city or county is confronting a crisis. That is a time when total focus would seem to be a prerequisite. Nonetheless, even as a citizen committee explained its recommended changes Monday to San Bernardino’s city charter during a City Council meeting, Councilman Benito Barrios was elsewhere: he was on the dais, but also on Facebook: he was trying to sell his friend’s gun—an effort which, unsurprisingly, within an hour, meant his efforts screenshots were being tweeted and shared in Facebook groups across the city—or as one constituent put it: “I guess his ward isn’t as important as that firearm and said friend.” While questions arose with regard to the legality of the gun sale (unclear), perhaps the more stressing issue related to focus—or, as the Councilmember stated: “This was during the presentations being given. So it took me 30, 40 seconds in between presentations…The perception is very bad for the people, and I’m aware of that. It’ll probably never happen again.” The occurrence, as former San Bernardino County Supervisor, and San Bernardino Councilmember Neil Derry told the San Bernardino Sun is about “multitasking: Intelligent people do it all the time. It’s a requirement for Marines.”

Rising Tide? Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder this week unveiled a new program, Rising Tide, intended to offer state-based mentoring for local officials of 10 struggling municipalities. The pilot, which the state calls Rising Tide, proposes no fiscal assistance; rather, it is designed so that Michigan economic development officials will work with 10 towns to help local leaders understand and create fiscal and economic development tools and strategies to attract and create new jobs—or, as Gov. Snyder stated: “We can collaborate with communities to help develop the tools to advance a strong economic vision and create new career opportunities for residents…This program will help economically challenged communities be better positioned for redevelopment opportunities.” The Governor announced the new initiative at a visit to River Rouge, a fiscally challenged Detroit suburb of less than 3,000 families—where the median age in the 2000 census was 33 years—and where, according to the most recent Census data, the median income for a household in the city was $29,214, and the median income for a family was $33,875. About 19.1% of families and 22.0% of the population were below the federal poverty level, including 30.6% of those under age 18 and 10.5% of those age 65 or over. The program will be led by the Michigan Department of Talent and Economic Development. State officials will offer mentoring help to local officials in struggling communities, and also outline common economic development tools to create jobs. The Governor’s office selected the municipalities based on unemployment rates, poverty levels and labor participation rate.

The Hard Road Down. In the wake of rating agency Moody’s downgrade of Ferguson, Missouri’s general obligation bonds or debt seven notches to Ba1—a steep drop which Moody’s attributed to not only Ferguson’s deteriorating fiscal situation, but also to apprehensions over the small municipality’s pending lawsuits and oncoming consent decree—a consent decree which will be based upon the federal investigation of police tactics and the city’s municipal budget reliance on traffic court fines—the municipality reacted with its own fire, moodily accusing Moody’s of being unwilling to give it more time to provide information that would offer a fuller picture. When a municipality is confronted by serious fiscal stress, a downgrading renders its ability to borrow both more difficult—and more expensive: precisely the opposite of what might be seen as a prerequisite for meaningful opportunity to recover. Moody’s, in its downgrading, however, noting that Ferguson’s fiscal reserves are shrinking—wrote that the municipality could be insolvent as early as 2017, citing city documents, noting, ergo, that its downgrade reflected “severe and rapid deterioration of the city’s financial position, possible depletion of fund balances in the near term, and limited options for restoring fiscal stability.” Missouri law provides that any municipality or subdivision may file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy (six cities have so filed—as well as one school district and one special district). Moody’s wrote. In its response, the small city—already besieged by extraordinary challenges—noted that in the midst of all the urgent demands, it had been unable to meet the severe timeline mandate imposed by Moody’s in which to respond with all the information requested, noting: “As a result, the city believes that Moody’s report is incomplete and fails to provide true transparency associated with Ferguson’s finances.” The municipality further noted it is still in the process of tabulating FY2015 revenues and preparing plans to address revenues and expenses—even as it confronts staffing constraints due to ongoing negotiations with federal Justice Department officials. Nevertheless, Moody’s downgrade will have adverse consequences: the downgrade will affect Ferguson’s $6.7 million of outstanding GO bonds, $8.4 million of certificates of participation from a 2013 issue, and $1.5 million of 2012 certificates.

No Consideration of Bankruptcy. The seeming outcome of a hearing convened by U.S. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) yesterday is that the Senate is unwilling to even consider legislation to permit the U.S. territory to be eligible for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy. Even while expressing disinterest, they claimed they want more information on Puerto’s Rico’s increasingly severe fiscal crisis—and that of its municipalities—and how to fix them. Instead, Chairman Grassley, whose committee has no jurisdiction over municipal bankruptcy legislation, offered that Congress should consider amending the Jones Act to exempt Puerto Rico from its onerous provisions which have the effect of imposing a tax on the costs of shipping goods from Puerto Rico to the U.S.—a federal law which has discriminated against Puerto Rico’s competiveness in the Caribbean, harming its economy. The Chairman also suggested Congress could reconsider the application of the minimum wage—which is currently 77% of the Puerto Rican median income compared to 28% on the mainland. Finally, mayhap thinking of the important value provided by the creation of financial control boards for both New York City and Washington, D.C., Chairman Grassley told the witnesses that a federal financial control board could be a good alternative. For his part, Chairman Hatch, whose Judiciary Committee has jurisdiction over federal bankruptcy laws, including chapter 9, seemed to defer to perspective of Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the American Action Forum, and the former Director of the Congressional Budget Office. Mr. Holtz-Eakin testified: “The primary focus (with regard to Puerto Rico) should be on policies that restore economic growth,” telling the committee that enacting legislation to offer Puerto Rico access to Chapter 9 bankruptcy (he did not address enacting such legislation so that—as under current federal law—Puerto Rico could authorize its municipalities access to municipal bankruptcy). But he also testified that the Puerto Rican government needs to provide Congress with better financial documents, noting that the commonwealth’s lack of “high quality” documents is “one of the very troubling aspects of this situation:” “debt sustainability analysis” needs to be done for Puerto Rico. Thus, he opined, that to authorize Puerto Rico access to municipal bankruptcy could do more harm than good, because, he testified, it would lead to one-sided “haircuts” on the residents who currently own about 30% of Puerto Rico’s municipal bonds; he added, however, that giving the U.S. territory access to municipal bankruptcy protection be warranted “somewhere down the road,” but not now. For his part, Ranking Member Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) advised that he intends to urge that Chairman Grassley hold hearings on the municipal bankruptcy bill which would alter Puerto Rico’s status. In their testimony, Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi (D-P.R.) and Government Development Bank of Puerto Rico president Melba Acosta each told the two committees Puerto Rico needs access to municipal bankruptcy protection to put a halt on the increasingly rapid depletion of revenues—so that the leaders have more time to negotiate on its debts—a chapter 9 filing, once accepted by a U.S. bankruptcy court, immediately freezes obligations to debtors, and initiates a process overseen by a federal bankruptcy court to work out a plan of debt adjustment with all its creditors—even as it guarantees there is no interruption of the provision of essential public services. The pair warned that, absent such protection, projections point to Puerto Rico running out of money near the end of the year, and adding: “The unavailability of any feasible legislative option to adjust debts has created an overall environment of uncertainty that makes it more difficult to address Puerto Rico’s fiscal challenges and further threatens Puerto Rico’s economic future.”

Steep Roads to Municipal Solvency

eBlog

September 17, 2015

The Steep Road to Fiscal Recovery. Notwithstanding Detroit’s successful recovery from the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy and the signs of an apparent turnaround in surrounding Wayne County, the fiscal challenge and importance of Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder and the legislature reaching an agreement as part of pending state transportation financing legislation to enable the Motor City to collect its income tax from commuters becomes more readily apparent in the wake of the release yesterday by the U.S. Census Bureau of its report finding Detroit to be the most impoverished major city in the U.S. with 39.3 percent of its population living below a poverty line of $24,008 for a family of four—even as the report found Michigan to be among 12 states which realized a decline in the percentage of people living in poverty in 2014—albeit Michigan’s poverty rate remained higher than the national average. Census found Flint, just an hour from Detroit, to be the nation’s poorest city, with 40.1 percent of its residents living in poverty. If there was a bright spot in the new Census data, it was a decline in the percentage of Michiganders without health insurance coverage: Census reported a decrease from 1,072,000 in 2013 to 837,000 in 2014–due in part to Michigan’s Medicaid expansion, which began enrolling residents in April 2014. Nevertheless, the numbers led Laura Lein, Dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Michigan, to comment: “The economic recovery is not yet affecting poverty or wage levels…It’s simply not affecting the part of the population that is economically challenged.” According to the new Census report, poverty rates remained flat across most of the Metro Detroit, and median income remained stagnant, or, as Richard Lichtenstein, associate professor of health management and policy at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, put it: “Most of the growth in income has been happening among the affluent and very little of it has been floating down to people at the lower income level.”

Poverty in big cities: Below, according to the new Census data, are the U.S. cities with the highest 2014 poverty levels:

  • Detroit, Michigan 39.3
  • Cleveland, Ohio 39.2
  • Fresno, California 30.5
  • Memphis, Tennessee 29.8
  • Milwaukee, Wisconsin 29
  • St. Louis, Missouri 28.5
  • Stockton, California 28.1
  • New Orleans, Louisiana 27.8
  • Miami, Florida 26.2
  • Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 26
    *Cities with population of more than 300,000
    Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Learning to Escape Poverty. The depressing Census numbers with regard to poverty in Detroit emphasize the importance of learning opportunities for the city’s children—but there the fiscal challenge remains daunting: Detroit Public Schools’ (DPS) deficit is increasing by millions of dollars. The system is issuing millions in new debt—at seemingly usurious rates: according to a quarterly report issued yesterday by the Michigan Department of Education, DPS, Michigan’s largest school district, has projected its deficit at $238.2 million as of June 30, or nearly 50 percent greater than a year earlier—that is: a trajectory towards bankruptcy—and making DPS among 14 Michigan school districts whose deficits climbed in 2014-15—a depressing trajectory which Michelle Zdrodowski, a DPS spokesperson, described as due to lower revenue from property taxes and asset sales, higher maintenance and utility costs, and a charge for legal contingencies. DPS, at the end of last week, borrowed $121.2 million through the Michigan Finance Authority—benefitting from being able to borrow through the lower interest rates than it would have been forced to pay on its own (the Michigan state aid revenue notes carry a 5.75 percent interest rate and are due Aug. 22, 2016); nevertheless, according to a state document detailing the financing, DPS has $337.8 million in outstanding loans. Thus the new borrowing to keep the system above water – so-called cash flow borrowing — to “assist with immediate cash flow needs” — coming at the commencement of the academic year (an option in Michigan made available to all public school districts on an annual basis to provide funding during those months when school districts do not receive state aid payment) nevertheless is unlikely to be the kind of math that would lead to good grades—or, as Gary Naeyaert, who leads a school-choice advocacy group, the Great Lakes Education Project, described the fiscal apprehension yesterday: “Michigan’s taxpayers should be outraged by DPS’ continuing efforts to increase their operational debt by borrowing money they simply won’t pay back…When you’re in a hole this deep, the first priority should be to stop digging.” He added that the seemingly usurious interest rate on the loan is a sign of the Detroit Public School District’s increasing fiscal peril: “The standard interest rate on these School Aid Notes is 1 percent for creditworthy districts…The fact that DPS is being charged 5.75 percent indicates what a terrible financial deal this is.” DPS, which has been experiencing declining enrollment for decades, has run a deficit in nine of the past 11 fiscal years—a period during which four state-appointed emergency managers have been named.

Pathway to Solvency. Meanwhile, in surrounding Wayne County, Michigan, County Executive Warren Evans yesterday advised his fellow elected commissioners that the County had reached tentative labor agreements with its employee unions, with his spokesperson stating: “We anticipate announcing major labor agreements with all of our unions in the very near future.” Even without providing details, the spokesperson for the County reported the new contracts would enable Wayne County to achieve the savings it needs without a 5 percent wage cut that the Evans’ administration had proposed earlier this year—a sign which, he indicated—was likely to augur that the unions will vote on the tentative agreements in the next few days. The seemingly upbeat news came as the Commission, meeting yesterday as a committee of the whole, voted preliminary approval to Mr. Evans’ proposed $1.56 billion county budget for FY 2015-16. That vote came as Mr. Evans submitted a projected, reduced $1.45 billion budget for the 2016-2017 fiscal year—with final votes expected today. In proposing the new budget, Mr. Evans told his elected colleagues that his budget would eliminate what remains of Wayne County’s $52 million structural deficit, that it would decrease unfunded health care liabilities by 76 percent, and reduce the need to divert funds from departments to cover general fund expenditures. In short, for a county in state-designated fiscal emergency, the budget would create a pathway to solvency. The county, Michigan’s largest—and the home to Detroit—had successfully sought a state declaration of a financial emergency last June, leading to the consent agreement with the state approved last month. Notwithstanding its potentially disappearing structural deficit, Wayne County still confronts one other daunting hurdle: a $910.5 million underfunded public pension system.

The Sharing Economy. The San Bernardino County Fire Protection District—the body key to the city of San Bernardino’s proposal, as part of its municipal bankruptcy plan of debt adjustment before the U.S. bankruptcy court, to annex or incorporate the city’s fire department—yesterday voted (with the vote taking place in San Bernardino City Council chambers) unanimously to make that and two related applications its top priority, an action intended to ensure the annexation process can be completed by next July 1st. If approved, the savings to bankrupt San Bernardino could be close to $12 million annually, coming from both the operating and capital savings, as well as the related parcel tax (a $143-per-year tax on each of the city’s 56,000 parcels) which requires annexation to implement. The vote could pave the way for public hearings next February, reconsideration in May, and actual commencement of the process by April—albeit an annexation process which could be terminated if more than 50 percent of registered voters protest, or lead to an election if written protests are received from either 25 to 50 percent of registered voters or at least 25 percent of landowners who own at least 25 percent of the total annexation land value. It turns out that in the emerging, sharing economy; sharing can be a most difficult, hurdled process—even where critical to emerging successfully from municipal bankruptcy.

Robbing a Capitol City’s Fiscal Future. Senior Pennsylvania District Judge Richard P. Cashman, voicing concern and apprehension about former Pennsylvania capitol city Harrisburg Mayor Stephen Reed’s style of governance, has upheld some 485 theft and corruption charges filed by the state attorney general’s office and sent the case to trial. Judge Cashman, ruling in Dauphin County court on Tuesday, ruled probable cause exists in the case against the former Mayor, whom the state attorney general’s office alleges used millions of dollars of municipal bond proceeds to purchase Wild West artifacts for a planned museum: the municipal bond proceeds, according to the prosecutors, were to be dedicated for retrofitting of the city’s municipal incinerator, the city’s school system, the Harrisburg Parking Authority, and the Harrisburg Senators minor-league baseball team, which the city owned at the time. The museum never got off the ground, but the municipal bond financing for the incinerator involved cost overruns which led the city to the brink of insolvency (the city successfully exited receivership in March, 2014); indeed, it was during former Mayor Reed’s long tenure as Mayor (from 1982 to 2009) that Pennsylvania’s capital city plummeted to the brink of bankruptcy. Bond financing overruns from the incinerator project largely accounted for the city’s $600 million-plus liability. At a Sept. 14 preliminary hearing, special agent Craig LeCadre, the lead investigator for Attorney General Kathleen Kane’s office, likened Reed to “a hoarder on steroids,” reporting that his investigators found roughly 10,000 artifacts in the basement of Mr. Reed’s apartment near the state capitol, and prosecutors presented a slide show which featured included a vampire hunting kit, a bronze statue of a cowboy on a bucking bronco, and a Spanish armor suit. They valued the latter two at $19,000 and $14,000, respectively.

Protecting Public Health & Safety in Fiscal Distress. The Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA) has reached a tentative settlement with the U.S. Justice Department and EPA under which it will spend $1.5 billion to upgrade and improve its system-wide sewer systems serving the municipalities of San Juan, Trujillo Alto, and portions of Bayamon, Guaynabo and Carolina, according to the U.S. Justice Department—as well as to invest sufficient funds to construct sanitary sewers to serve communities surrounding the Martin Peña Canal—improvements affecting the health and safety of some 20,000 U.S. citizens. Under the terms of the agreement with the Justice Dept., and in recognition of PRASA’s fiscal stress, the Justice Dept. waived civil penalties for violations alleged in a complaint, noting that many of the “provisions of the agreement have been tailored to focus on the most critical problems first, giving more time to address the less critical problems over time.” John Cruden, Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s environment and natural resources division, noted that certain projects required under the 2006 and 2010 agreements had been found to be no longer necessary, because the island’s population has declined, so that the stipulated upgrades were no longer critical to protect public health and safety from the “public’s exposure to serious health risks posed by untreated sewage,” adding that—in reaching the settlement, “The United States has taken Puerto Rico’s financial hardship into account by prioritizing the most critical projects first, and allowing a phased in approach in other areas.” The settlement, which is pending before the U.S. District Court for Puerto Rico, is subject to a 30-day public comment period and must be approved by the federal court.

The Seemingly Irreconcilable Challenge between Addressing Debt & Investing in the Future

September 11, 2015

Investing in Kids? S&P has lowered its ratings on the Michigan Finance Authority’s series 2011 revenue bonds to A from A-plus and series 2012 revenues bonds to A-minus from A-plus with a negative outlook—bonds issued by the MFA for the Detroit Public Schools, with S&P analyst John Sauter writing: “The district’s continued overall financial and liquidity deterioration is another contributing factor.” The bonds, which are payable from the repayment of loans made by the MFA to the Motor City’s school district—loans secured by all appropriated annual state aid to be received by the school district—which has irrevocably assigned 100% of its pledged state aid to the loans (and thereby to the authority’s bonds). The district’s 2011 obligation holds a first-lien pledge of state aid, and the 2012 obligation a second lien. The district’s limited-tax general obligation (GO) pledge also secures both obligations. The ratings reflect the strength and structural features of the district’s state aid pledge to its obligations. Mr. Sauter noted: “The downgrade is based on severe declines in the district’s enrollment, and subsequently, pledged state aid available to pay debt service.” DPS’ credit downward trajectory appears to reflect continued fiscal stress as indicated by significant growth in DPS’ accumulated operating fund balance deficit from FY2014 and ongoing declines in enrollment—declines which pressure operating revenue, as well as the perception that DPS lacks the capacity to reverse the negative operating trend. But the rating also takes into consideration the weak economic profile of the City of Detroit (B3 stable), DPS’ substantial debt burden, and an operating budget constrained by high fixed costs. Absent enrollment and revenue growth, fixed costs will comprise a growing share of DPS’s annual financial resources and potentially stress the sufficiency of year-round cash flow. The unholy combination of falling revenue, rising costs, and credit downgrades can raise the cost of borrowing money—creating a vicious cycle that erodes the fiscal capacity to invest in Detroit’s future taxpayers. Michigan law prohibits its school districts from raising property taxes for operating funds over 18 mills on non-homestead properties; thus, many districts have cut spending, laid off teachers and other staff and eliminated some school programs. DPS has been under the auspices of a state emergency manager for several years and has about $483 million in debt. The district’s enrollment was once well above 100,000 students, but now is about 47,000. Former state superintendent of Public Instruction Mike Flanagan wrote earlier this year in a report to education appropriation subcommittees as he was leaving his post that cash needs could force Detroit Schools to refinance even more debt. The downgrade affects both costs and reputation: for Detroit, its ability to leverage families to move into the city is inherently dependent upon the reputation of its public school system.

Planning Debt Adjustment. When a municipality is in bankruptcy, it is forced to juggle thousands upon thousands of issues relating to constructing a plan of debt adjustment with its creditors that will secure the federal court’s approval—a process made ever more difficult with the approach of elections. This adds stress—and confusion—as could be observed in San Bernardino in the wake of a brief welter of confusion yesterday when a tentative contract agreement already reported to U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury was abruptly pulled off the City Council agenda—a contract with the city’s general unit, which represents some 357 employees who are not in another union, such as police or management. Nevertheless, the contract is now set for the Council to review in closed session at the city council’s meeting scheduled for a week from Monday—in this instance, a contract with regard to leave policy for the city’s employees, who have been working under a contract which expired June 30th as they negotiated with the city for a new contract. The need for a revision arose in the wake of the city’s implementation of one part of its 2012 bankruptcy plan — freezing leave which had accrued before August 2012, when the city filed for bankruptcy protection. That meant that by this year, many employees wound up with negative leave balances—a situation which a city official described to the Council as “very detrimental to the employees.”

Debt Restructuring Outside of Bankruptcy. If you can imagine an NFL football game without any referees or under-inflated footballs, you can begin to imagine the chaos triggered by the release in Puerto Rico this week of its quasi plan of debt adjustment—a plan which, unsurprisingly, calls for its municipal bondholders in each of the nation’s 50 states to accept less than they are owed. The U.S. territory has $13 billion less than it needs to cover its debt payments over the next five years—and that is even after taking into account the proposed spending cuts and measures to raise revenue in the newly proposed plan. Puerto Rico officials estimate that the island will have only $5 billion of available funds to repay $18 billion of debt service on $47 billion of debt, excluding obligations of its electric and water utilities. The projected debt-funding shortfall is after anticipated savings from the consolidation of 135 public schools, reductions in health-care spending, additional subsidy cuts and reductions in payroll expenses. So now, in an unrefereed, unprecedented fiscal process, Puerto Rico’s fiscal team plans to present its investors with a debt-exchange offer in the next few weeks. It also intends to seek a moratorium on principal payments. And it will not have long: the whistle will blow by the end of the year, leaving the unenviable challenge and task of seeking to get all the creditors on the field quickly: Puerto Rico is on course to run out of cash by the end of this calendar year unless it can refinance its debt—or as non-football BlackRock analyst Peter Hayes yesterday put it: “They have a real solvency issue…They have a liquidity crisis on their hands that grows very dire by the end of the year.” And the fiscal threat and challenge was exacerbated by S&P’s dropping of Puerto Rico’s tax-backed debt to CC from CCC-, and removal of the U.S. territory’s ratings from CreditWatch, where they had been placed with negative implications July 20. The outlook is negative. With the near certainty of a default or restructuring—or fiscal event, there is an increased likelihood of either a missed debt service payment or a distressed exchange which would resemble a default. Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla stated that if Puerto Rico’s creditors are unwilling to partake in restructuring negotiations, Puerto Rico would have no alternative but to proceed without them even if it involved “years of litigation and defaults.”

Herding Angry Sheep. In a television address, Gov. Padilla yesterday announced the appointment of a team of debt restructuring experts to negotiate with Puerto Rico’s creditors—a process which would be unprecedented as those creditors run from some of the world’s most sophisticated to tens of thousands of individual municipal bondholders in each of the nation’s 50 states—and a process which, absent action by Congress, might more resemble gladiators in a coliseum than the kinds of overseen negotiations which took place under the aegis of U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes in Detroit. Adding to the uncertainty, the report on which such negotiations is premised is technically only a recommendation. Try and imagine a football game not only without referees or under inflated balls, but also without agreed upon rules. That report projects Puerto Rico’s treasury will exhaust its liquidity by November—and only until then if Puerto Rico takes extraordinary measures to preserve cash. Unlike a non-governmental corporation—Puerto Rico has no ability to act unilaterally: actions require legislative and gubernatorial action and concurrence. Moreover, it is not just Puerto Rico, but also the Puerto Rico Government Development Bank (GDB)–which is projected to exhaust its liquidity before the end of calendar 2015. And there are dozens and dozens of municipalities at growing fiscal risk (Puerto Rico’s municipalities cannot file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection, and a local debt-restructuring law enacted in June 2014 was thrown out by a federal judge in San Juan.). But, like in football game, there is a clock: and it is already running: we know that Puerto Rico will not have fully sufficient fiscal resources in FY2016 to make payment on its scheduled tax-supported debt, including its General Obligation (GO) debt, so that for creditors, it is almost as if the music for a game of musical chairs has already started. The report released this week forecasts a total central government deficit as a whole, including the general fund, GDB net revenue, COFINA, federal programs, and Puerto Rico Highways & Transportation Authority (HTA) net revenue, in fiscal 2016 of $3.2 billion, or about 16 percent of expenditures, including payment of debt service; it projects only a $924 million surplus available before payment of debt service. That is, it appears, as in musical chairs, that there simply will be insufficient fiscal capacity to meet the obligations to pay $1.8 billion of GO and GO-guaranteed debt service (GO debt service alone is $1.2 billion), much less total central government debt service, including GO debt, of $4.1 billion. Or, as Mr. Hayes wrote: “We rate all Puerto Rico tax-backed debt at the same ‘CC’ level, except for Puerto Rico Public Finance Corp. (PFC) debt, which is currently in default and rated ‘D,’ reflecting the report’s projection of limited liquidity to meet all debt service before the end of calendar 2015, including GO debt service, and the report’s recommendation to enter restructuring discussions with all tax-backed debt holders.”

Municipal Bankruptcy Is Large, Complicated, & Seemingly Unending

September 10, 2015

Fiscal Gales in the Windy City. As the City of Chicago grapples with its growing unfunded pension liabilities, the city’s fiscal sustainability has become increasingly at risk—putting Mayor Rahm Emanuel nearer to a fiscal cliff for the Windy City. Increasingly the unfunded pension liabilities are threatening the city’s fiscal future, and the options on the table—such as a potential huge property tax hike to fund the city’s pension liabilities portray how risky the city’s fiscal future and options are: would a huge property tax increase discourage businesses and families from moving into Chicago? Or, as the ever insightful Laurence Msall, president of the Chicago Civic Federation, puts it: “How is Mayor Emanuel going to convince the City Council and the citizens of Chicago that with this very painful and, we believe, necessary increase?” The question arises as Mayor Emanuel may seek a record half billion property tax increase to address the city’s rising pension costs—and avoid bankruptcy. The city is also considering the imposition of a new levy for garbage collection, as well as other revenue sources to respond to a $328 million to $550 million scheduled annual spike in police and fire pension contributions under a prior state unfunded mandate requiring the city to make such contributions on an actuarial basis. The window for the Mayor is winnowing down: he is scheduled to release his proposed budget a week from Tuesday—a budget in which, in addition to tax and revenue proposals, Mayor Emanuel is also expected to propose a long-term fiscal plan which will also include changes in both spending habits and debt practices in what Mr. Msall denotes as a day of reckoning for Chicago. Chicago’s fiscal dilemma is further complicated by the ongoing stalemate in Springfield, where Gov. Bruce Rauner and the legislature remain deadlocked, so that there is still no FY2016 budge—where the stalemate shows little sign of abatement. For Mayor Emanuel, no matter the stalemate in the state capitol, he has just over 10 days to put together a proposed $754 million budget—one likely to incorporate a $233 million operating deficit, $93 million in increased city contributions owed to the municipal and laborers’ pension funds, and about $100 million in debt repayment the city previously intended to defer in its amortization schedule. The budget is almost certain to propose a $328 million hike in contributions for Chicago’s police and firefighters’ pension funds—but mayhap larger if the legislature and Gov. in Springfield are unable to reach consensus on pending state legislation which would re-amortize payments.

Fiscal Teetering in Pa.’s Capitol City. In his State of the City address this week, Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse warned that the city’s plan it adopted two years ago when the city narrowly averted filing for municipal bankruptcy must be amended—noting that the revenues assumed under that plan are falling short and will be insufficient by next year—and making clear that the deficiencies could not be offset by cost-cutting alone, especially since, he noted: “While the City is starving for capacity, we have already cut discretionary funding to the bone.” Indeed, Mayor Papenfuse noted the city has reduced its work force by nearly half over the last decade and that this fiscal year “will mark the second year in a row that we have significantly underspent our adopted budget.” Nevertheless, he warned, this city is simply not on a “sustainable course.” Therefore, he has proposed three key fiscal changes: 1) Tripling the municipality’s $1-per-week tax on employees working within the city limits to $3 per week; 2) Expanding the city’s sanitation operations, and 3) Transitioning to home rule authority.

Planning Debt Adjustment. The nation’s last large municipality in municipal bankruptcy, San Bernardino, has reached a tentative contract agreement with its largest employee group, its so-called general unit. The announcement, Tuesday, reached after last month’s agreement with the city’s Police Officers Association, means that San Bernardino now has plan of debt adjustment agreements with nearly all its employees—except its firefighters—where multiple legal complaints by the fire union against the city continue. Indeed, in the wake of the city’s rejection of its bargaining agreement with the fire union and implementing changes, including closing fire stations—in an election year—the city hopes to reach agreement on the fire front within a week, even as the city is proceeding in its process of having its fire department annexed into the San Bernardino County fire protection district—a key step anticipated to add more than $12 million to the bankrupt municipality’s treasury: $4.7 million in savings and $7.8 million in revenue from a parcel tax, according to San Bernardino’s bankruptcy attorney, Paul Glassman—or more than the $7 million to $10 million in savings the city incorporated into its proposed plan of debt adjustment it submitted to U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury—proposing that the funds should go toward pension obligation bondholders whom San Bernardino proposes to pay 1 cent for every dollar they are owed, according to the bondholders’ attorney—a proposal certain to be bitterly challenged in the federal courtroom. Complicating the process—and quite unlike any other major municipal bankruptcy—is that it remains unclear what might occur were the proposed annexation process to break down between now and July — especially were a sufficient number of San Bernardino voters to protest the tax and trigger an election. Although missing the deadlines required to complete the annexation process by July 2016 would be costly (because it would trigger a full fiscal year delay), an interim agreement with the San Bernardino County Fire Department would continue to provide services. Next up: Judge Jury has scheduled a hearing in her federal courtroom next month on the adequacy of San Bernardino’s financial statements and its modified plan of debt adjustment for October 8th.

Debt Restructuring Outside of Bankruptcy. The U.S. territory of Puerto Rico yesterday proposed a five-year plan Document: Puerto Rico’s Debt Plan under which the island would broadly restructure its unpayable debts, restructuring more than half its $72 billion in outstanding municipal bond debt, and seeking to implement major economic overhauls—and act under the direction of a financial control board—somewhat akin to the actions taken in New York City and Washington, D.C. to avert municipal bankruptcy. The proposed plan also proposed changes, such as welfare reform, changes to labor laws, and elimination of corporate-tax loopholes. Under the proposal, the governor would select a five-member control board from nominees submitted by creditors, outside stakeholders, and, possibly, the federal government—a panel which would have the power to enforce budgetary cuts. The document explains that Puerto Rico confronts a $13 billion funding shortfall for debt payments over the next five years—even after taking into account proposed spending cuts and revenue enhancement measures outlined in a long-awaited fiscal and economic growth plan. The report from Puerto Rico Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla’s administration notes that Puerto Rico will seek to restructure its debt in negotiations with creditors as an alternative to avoid a legal morass which could further weaken the territory’s economy: it offered no estimates of what kind or level of potential losses would be anticipated from the owners spread across each of the nation’s 50 states of Puerto Rico’s $72 billion in outstanding municipal debt. The plan details the grim situation of Puerto Rico’s fiscal challenges—and of the dire consequences to the island’s 3.5 million residents: Puerto Rico will have less than a third of the fiscal resources to meet its obligations: it has only about $5 billion available to pay $18 billion of principal and interest payments to its municipal bondholders spread all across the U.S. and coming due between 2016 to 2020—and that only if the plan’s proposed savings from the consolidation of 135 public schools, reductions in health-care spending, additional subsidy cuts, and reductions in payroll expenses were realized. Mayhap the greatest obstacle under the proposed plan will be its proposal to restructure Puerto Rico’s general obligation bond debts, municipal bonds which were sold to investors with an explicit territorial constitutional promise that Puerto Rico would commit to timely repayments—repayments which would take priority over all other governmental expenditures. Nevertheless, the plan proposes to renege on the so-called ‘full faith and credit’ pledge attached to municipal bonds issued by state and local governments on so-called general obligation or ‘full faith and credit’ bonds—a proposal which is unconstitutional under the territory’s constitution—but which the island’s leaders contend is critical lest Puerto Rico were to run out of cash by next summer—as its current fiscal projections indicate is certain absent access to municipal bankruptcy protection or triggering a proposal such as has been now proposed. The plan leaves unclear how it squares with Puerto Rico’s constitution; yet island officials made clear that were Puerto Rico to continue to make such required payments, Puerto Rico’s treasury would be depleted by next summer—with such payments, were they not cut back, leaving the government short of cash for vital public services as early as November. Under the proposed fiscal blueprint, Puerto Rico will provide its creditors with more detailed cash flow projections so that negotiations could begin on repayment alternatives and options—negotiations not only pitting the island’s essential services against bondholders in every state in the U.S., but also between classes of municipal bondholders—with general obligation bondholders anticipated to seek the most favorable treatment. One of the exceptional challenges will be that—unlike in Jefferson County, Detroit, Stockton, or San Bernardino—there will be no referee, no federal bankruptcy judge—to oversee the process. In addition to the debt restructuring, the new five-year plan calls for an ambitious series of steps to deliver public services and collect taxes more efficiently, stimulate business investment and job creation and carry out long-overdue maintenance on roads, ports and bridges. Many of the measures will require legislative approval.

Financial Control Board. The plan proposes a five-member board of independent fiscal experts who would be selected from a list of candidates nominated by different parties, including classes of creditors, the federal government, and others. Such a board would be charged with: how to deal with disproportionate and inequitably imbalanced creditors—creditors imbalanced not just fiscally, but also in terms of capacity to represent themselves. How do the island’s poorest U.S. citizens (an estimated 48 percent of Puerto Ricans are Medicaid recipients) fare against some of the wealthiest U.S. citizens who live in Alaska, California, New York, etc., and who own Puerto Rican G.O. bonds? That is, as members of Governor Padilla’s working group have noted, the inability to have access to a neutral federal court and legal process could put the island—and especially its poorest Americans—at the greatest disadvantage.

Fiscal Challenges. Gov. Padilla’s working group plan projected that, if the plan were adopted and implemented, it would be key to bringing Puerto Rico’s five-year total fiscal deficit down to about $13 billion. To close it, however, they made clear, Puerto Rico could not meet its full municipal bond payment obligations. The working plan estimated that over the next five years, Puerto Rico would have to make $18 billion in principal and interest payments to municipal bondholders on some $47 billion in outstanding municipal bond debt—but that they would propose diverting $13 billion to finish paying for essential public services over the coming five years, leaving for a Solomon’s choice about how to apportion deep cuts in Puerto’s Rico’s constitutionally obligated payments to bondholders scattered all across America—and no road map or federal bankruptcy judge to opine what might be the most equitable means in which to opt to make such payments—much less what legal ramifications might trigger. Put in context, the plan proposes a fiscal restructuring significantly larger than Detroit’s record municipal bankruptcy filing—a filing with U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes which involved some $8 billion of municipal bond debt. Puerto Rico entities are unable to access Chapter 9.

Muni Bankruptcy Is Large, Complicated, & Seemingly Unending. Jefferson County, which emerged from what was—at the time—the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history nearly two years ago now can better appreciate that it “ain’t over until it’s over,” finding itself before the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this week where a group of the County’s residents claimed they were denied constitutional protections under the decision of the U.S. bankruptcy court’s approval of Jefferson County’s plan of debt adjustment, with their attorney testifying: “The essence of our client’s position to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals is that our clients are entitled to their day in court on the merits of the legal issues presented by the Jefferson County plan of adjustment,” adding that while it was “understandable that the U.S. bankruptcy court wanted to bring the case to closure…fundamental constitutional issues simply cannot be trumped by such concerns.” The issue is whether the court should accept or reject Jefferson County’s appeal of a September 2014 ruling by U.S. District Judge Sharon Blackburn, in which Judge Blackburn rejected the county’s arguments that the ratepayers’ municipal bankruptcy appeal was moot, in part because the plan had been significantly consummated, but also because Judge Blackburn claimed she could consider the constitutionality of Jefferson County’s plan of debt adjustment, which ceded Jefferson County’s future authority to oversee sewer rates to the federal bankruptcy court. The odoriferous legal issue relates to Jefferson County’s issuance—as part of its approved plan of debt adjustment—to issue $1.8 billion in sewer refunding warrants—an issuance which not only paved the way for Jefferson County to write down some $1.4 billion in related sewer debt, but also to exit municipal bankruptcy and the overwhelming costs of the litigation. Thus, with the sale of the new warrants consummated, Jefferson County exited (or at least believed it had…) municipal bankruptcy. The county’s sewer ratepayers, however, are claiming Jefferson County’s plan contains an “offensive” provision which would enable the federal bankruptcy court to retain jurisdiction over the plan for the 40 years that the sewer refunding warrants remain outstanding—a federal oversight which Jefferson County has argued has provided a critical security feature that has been key to attracting investors to purchase the warrants it issued in 2013—a transaction which the County alleges cannot be unwound—and added that the appeal by the residents is constitutionally, equitably, and statutorily moot, because the plan has already been implemented. The ratepayers have countered that even if the federal oversight provision were to be deleted from the County’s approved plan of adjustment, the indenture for the 2013 sewer warrants provides greater latitude to resolve a default: noting that were a subsequent fiscal default to occur, “the trustee shall be entitled to petition the bankruptcy court or any other court of competent jurisdiction for an order enforcing the requirements of the confirmed plan of adjustment.” (Such requirements include increasing rates charged for services, so that the sewer system generates sufficient revenue to cure any default.) But it is the provision allowing the federal bankruptcy court to maintain oversight which is central to Jefferson County’s position—in no small part because it offers an extra layer of security for bondholders and prospective bondholders of a municipality which opts to avail itself of a provision in the U.S. bankruptcy code which allows the judicial branch of the U.S. to retain oversight of a city or county’s plan of fiscal adjustment—or, as the perennial godfather of municipal bankruptcy Jim Spiotto puts it, the question in Jefferson County’s case involves an interpretation over what the U.S. bankruptcy code permits and whether the federal court’s supervision is actually the act of setting rates or insuring that the county complies with the covenants that it promised.

In Jefferson County, as in most cities and counties, sewer system rates have been set by resolutions approved by the Jefferson County Commission to fix rates and charges sufficient to cover the cost of providing sewer service, including funds for operations and maintenance, capital expenditures, and debt service on the 2013 warrants. Jefferson County’s attorneys have added that neither the plan of adjustment or U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Thomas Bennett’s confirmation order “changes the substantive law of the state of Alabama with regard to the enforcement of rates established pursuant to contract or legislation….Rather, the plan merely retains the bankruptcy court as an available forum in which such substantive law may be enforced, using the same remedies available in Alabama state court…In no event will the bankruptcy court ever set sewer rates; it is simply a forum to enforce the plan and related contracts – just as an Alabama state court could.” Ergo, part of the federalism issue and challenge relates to the Johnson Act, which essentially prohibits federal courts from taking actions that directly and indirectly affect the rates of utilities organized under state laws. In this instance, the ratepayers have claimed that the removal of the “retention of jurisdiction provision” from Jefferson County’s bankruptcy confirmation order would not unlawfully impose a new, involuntary plan on the county and its residents because “the indenture explicitly contemplates that the purchasers of the new sewer warrants may seek relief from courts other than the bankruptcy court.” Moreover, they claim the transaction would not have to be unwound were the U.S. district court to strike the jurisdictional retention provision from the plan, because the sewer bondholders could seek relief from other courts were Jefferson County to fail to increase sewer rates. The court directed Jefferson County to respond to its challenging sewer ratepayers by Monday, September 28th. Stay tuned.