Ethics & Their Role in Municipal Fiscal Distress

October 15, 2015. Share on Twitter

Unravelling SWAPs & Paying the Windy City’s Pipers. In a new report, the Chicago Civic Federation rendered its support for Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s City of Chicago proposed FY2016 budget of $7.8 billion—applauding the Mayor’s proposals to take on the Windy City’s public safety pension funding crisis, but expressing apprehension that perhaps the largest municipal property tax increase in U.S. history, by itself, might be insufficient to stabilize Chicago finances, especially given continued legal uncertainty with regard to the city’s public pension and retiree health care reforms. The big kahuna in the Mayor’s proposed FY2016 budget is a $1.26 billion property tax levy, an increase of more than 33% from the originally adopted FY2015 budget, rising in subsequent years to $544.2 million between FY2015 (payable in 2016) and FY2018 (payable in 2019) with those proceeds dedicated entirely to fund the city’s Police and Fire pension funds, with the always insightful federation leader Laurence Msall noting: “Mayor Emanuel and his team deserve credit for transparently outlining a plan to address one of the City’s most urgent financial crises,” adding, however, that “[G]reater sacrifice will be needed to address the pension funding crises for non-public safety funds, the liquidity crises at Chicago Public Schools (please see below for the criminal, ethical, and fiscal challenges to CPS), and Chicago’s ongoing structural deficit, urging the city to consider greater cost savings and efficiencies, “especially in public safety operations that have largely avoided budgetary scrutiny in recent years.” Mr. Msall noted that the Mayor’s FY’2016 budget reduces Chicago’s reliance on what the Federation terms “scoop and toss,” or what he notes is “an expensive practice which extends the life of existing [municipal] bonds and dramatically increases the cost of providing government services—” a practice Mayor Emanuel pledged to the Association he would phase out by FY2019, beginning with a $100 million reduction in FY2016. {Please note next item, “Gambling,” with regard to this prohibitive municipal finance process.] Nevertheless, Mr. Msall expressed apprehension with regard to the as yet unreleased portion of the city’s proposed budget on its plans for how to fund two significant potential expenses in its upcoming fiscal year: an additional $220 million pension contribution and an increase in retiree health care costs. In its proposal, the city’s budget assumes the state will act to adopt the Mayor’s proposed changes to the City’s pension funding schedule. Indeed, such legislation has passed both houses of the Illinois legislature; however, the bill has not been released for Governor Rauner’s signature, nor has Gov. Rauner indicated that he will sign it: without such a signature Chicago will be required to contribute an additional $220 million to its pension funds in the new fiscal year. Moreover, the city still faces uncertainty with regard to the ongoing litigation over its proposed phase-out of its retiree health care benefits—where an adverse court ruling could significantly increase retiree health care costs.

Gambling on a City’s Future. At the exceptional conference, Bankruptcy and Beyond, hosted by Professor Juliet Moringiello of the Widener Law School in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania last year, there was substantive focus on the dangers of municipal involvement with so-called swaps—or municipal instruments packaged by Wall Street to make bets on interest rates—bets which Bloomberg this week insightfully noted are “costing [Chicago] taxpayers at least $270 million since Moody’s Investors Service cut its rating to junk in May,” noting that while traditionally, the exchange of one kind of municipal security for another to change the maturity (bonds), quality of issues (stocks or bonds), or because investment objectives have changed has been a more or less regular practice—one which has left all too many municipalities susceptible to significant fees and risk; more recently, so-called swaps have expanded to include currency and interest rate swaps—all leading to increased payouts to Wall Street banks, but coming, as noted above, as the Windy City considers a record tax increase to cover its public pension liabilities—swap costs in this case that are more than the city spends annually for the collection of garbage at 613,000 homes, or the equivalent of hiring more than 2,000 police officers. And that is before the city is forced to pay the piper to unwind municipal derivatives as it considers still another round of municipal debt restructuring—a round which could cost the debt-stressed city $110 million to unwind derivatives on its water debt—or, as the ever prescient Richard Ciccarone, the CEO of Merritt Research Services: “I don’t think the public should be gambling with its funds…Save the speculation for people who risk their own money, not for taxpayers.” Indeed, as can be seen from Bloomberg’s chart, Chicago confronts enormous debts to banks—not to teach in its troubled schools or to protect it citizens, but almost as a penalty for failing for too many years to address its rising pensions and borrowings to cover debt service. Instead of such critical investments, the city—and other cities and counties, as Bloomberg noted, “and other municipal borrowers in the past decade made bets on the future direction of interest rates through agreements with banks to swap interest payments. But when rates fell under the Federal Reserve’s attempt to stimulate the economy after the financial crisis, many issuers ended up on the wrong side of the bets. Since then [municipal] issuers have paid at least $5 billion to unwind the agreements.” Indeed, the city was scheduled to sell $439 million worth of municipal of bonds yesterday—with nearly 20 percent set aside to cover some $70.2 million to end an interest-rate swap tied to variable-rate debt for the city’s sewer system—and that, as Bloomberg adds, is “on top of $185 million paid to unwind swaps on general-obligation and sales tax debt since May.”The estimated $270 million total also includes the cost to banks and other professionals to restructure, according to data Bloomberg compiled from city documents. Chicago owed as much as $396 million to banks in March, before the city started terminating the swap agreements, according to market values at the time. Saqib Bhatti, a Chicago-based fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, told Bloomberg: “We’re paying these fees at the same time the city is looking at the biggest tax increase in its history,” adding that he has been recommending that governments with swaps should push to cut the fees rather than pay Wall Street banks: “Working residents of the city are going to have to sacrifice for the city to pay these fees to the banks.”

Aiding & Abetting Municipal Fiscal Distress. While they might teach math in Michigan’s schools, it might be that ethics ought also to be mandatory there and in Chicago—both places of exceptional fiscal challenges, but with, seemingly, one common denominator: unethical behavior from the top with abhorrent fiscal consequences. Thus it was Tuesday that former Chicago Public Schools (CPS) head Barbara Byrd-Bennett pled guilty to her role in a scheme to steer $23 million in no-bid contracts to education firms for $2.3 million in bribes and kickbacks. As part of her agreement, prosecutors recommended that Ms. Byrd-Bennett serve 7.5 years in prison for one count of fraud—an agreement under which prosecutors said in return they would drop the 19 other fraud counts, each of which carried a maximum 20-year term. The disservice by which Ms. Byrd-Bennett harmed Chicago’s fiscal sustainability and its children’s future came from her own past disservice to Detroit, where, as the former Detroit Public Schools chief academic officer, she had stepped down in the wake of a federal investigation into a contract between the district and SUPES Academy, a training academy where she once worked.—an investigation in which prosecutors allege the scheme started in 2012 — the year Mayor Rahm Emanuel hired her to become Chicago’s school district CEO. The indictment alleged that the owners of the two education service and training firms offered her a job and a hefty one-time payment, a payment purported to be a lucrative signing bonus — once she left CPS. The indictment alleges Ms. Byrd-Bennett expected to receive kickbacks worth 10 percent of the value of the contracts, or close to $2.3 million—or enough as Ms. Byrd-Bennett emailed to executives more than three years’ ago so that she could make money, writing: “I have tuition to pay and casinos to visit.” Her untimely departure comes in the wake of leaving the Detroit Public Schools system with what, today, is $327 million in debt with no visible means of repayment, and contemplating municipal bankruptcy, even as its debt insurer, Assured Guaranty Ltd., is pressing the Michigan legislature to bar the system from such a filing. Without the agreement, the insurer has threatened to accelerate long-term debt payments, raising the annual payment amount from $21 million to $45 million. In some sense, Ms. Byrd-Bennett brought her unethical and criminal fiscal legacy with her: SUPES Academy and Synesi Associates LLC owners Gary Soloman and Thomas Vranas have been accused of offering Ms. Byrd-Bennett money, along with sporting-event tickets and other kickbacks, in exchange for the contracts. Synesi Associates, which trains principals and school administrators—one shudders to imagine what kind of training they offer, was awarded contracts with Detroit Public Schools under Ms. Byrd-Bennett’s tenure, according to records posted on DPS’ website.

The ABC’s of Municipal Fiscal Challenges. The Holland, Michigan, School District, more than 100 years old—as may be observed from one of its oldest photos—is, like many Michigan school districts, confronting sharp and unexpected enrollment declines—declines adversely affecting their bottom lines; or, as Moody’s yesterday moodily opined, Holland illustrates not the place to skate all Winter, but rather the kinds of severe fiscal challenges of too many Michigan school districts—districts facing declining enrollments, stagnant state aid, and limited ability to raise additional revenues. Holland, a city of about 33,000 in the southwestern part of the lower peninsula, not unlike Detroit, is confronting a severe fiscal, as opposed to scholastic challenge in its K-12 system—or, as Moody’s this week reported, the A-1 credit-rated school district, has experienced a 174-student drop in enrollment—a drop nearly double what the district had anticipated and budgeted for in its current fiscal year—an enrollment drop which translates into a revenue loss of $591,000 in state aid, or, as Moody’s moodily explains: “The enrollment decline is not only credit negative for the district, but reflects the widespread credit challenges that continue to face Michigan school districts.” Moody analyst David Levett wrote: “Such pressures have led us to downgrade 44 Michigan school districts this year.” Holland’s six consecutive general fund operating deficits have been driven primarily by declining enrollment and the ensuing reduction in state aid under Michigan’s per-pupil funding system. As Mr. Levett notes: “Although officials are still analyzing this year’s enrollment figures, the district’s long-term trend of enrollment declines is attributable to significant competition from charter schools and an aging population,” effectively a fiscal one-two punch—two trends, however, which appear to be schooling Michigan’s elementary and secondary school fiscal sustainability, albeit with a potential steepening of the downward curve—or, as Mr. Levett added: “Even [school] districts that plan for declines may miss the mark on the magnitude of those declines.” Demographics are contributing to the fiscal python squeeze; the Census Bureau reports Michigan’s under-18 population is projected to decline an estimated 13% from 2000 to 2012, so that, as Mr. Levett further writes, “The state’s funding structure, demographic trends and liberal enrollment policies create an unpredictable and competitive environment for districts.” Indeed, close to 80 percent of Michigan’s school districts with more than $25 million in outstanding municipal debt experienced enrollment declines between 2009 and 2013—creating not just arithmetic opportunities for the system’s students, but math problems for the state’s school fiscal officers.

Restructuring Municipal Debt & Supermunis. Treasury Department and Puerto Rico officials are negotiating options for restructuring the U.S. commonwealth’s $72 billion in debts, especially with it becoming increasingly clear that the absentee U.S. Congress is unlikely to take any action to ensure Puerto Rico can avoid insolvency and be unable to provide essential public services. Under the evolving plan, the Treasury, or an agreed upon third party, would be in charge of an account which held a significant portion of Puerto Rico’s tax revenues—which would, effectively, be designated to pay holders of so -called super municipal bonds—municipal bonds, in this instance, held by bond owners in Puerto Rico and every state in the country who agreed to trade in their existing bonds for the new hybrid—albeit, a post “haircut” hybrid which, as in the case of a municipal bankruptcy, would be worth less than before the exchange, but which would be backed by employment and other taxes that the U.S. Treasury would collect for the territory, as well as possibly some of Puerto Rico’s own Treasury revenues. Under the evolving proposal, Treasury would act as a kind of intermediary; it would not be providing the territory with any kind of direct financial assistance or any guarantee; rather its role would be to serve as a quasi-trusted third party in a financial arrangement under which the new super municipal bonds would not only be backed by a much broader range of taxes than those that back the individual bonds of the territory and its authorities currently, but also indirectly through the unprecedented role of the U.S. Treasury—protecting and providing greater assurance to Puerto Rico’s bondholders of repayment. The discussions have not resolved whether any Congressional legislation would be needed, albeit, it is clear that the U.S. territory’s elected leaders would have to agree to potential debt exchange.

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A Steepening Road to Municipal Recovery

October 9, 2015

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

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

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

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.”

The Importance of Being Earnest for a Municipality in federal Bankruptcy Court

eBlog

September 21, 2015

Don’t Count Your Marbles Before They’s Hatched. In a decision U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury acknowledged “puts a bunch of marbles on the road to reorganization” for San Bernardino, Judge Jury last Thursday ruled San Bernardino had not met its legal obligation to bargain with the fire union before outsourcing the Fire Department. The costly setback now means the city has an expensive pothole to repair—something which will consume both time and the city’s inadequate fiscal resources—and as the municipal election and the consequently related issues draw ever closer. San Bernardino, to comply with Judge Jury’s decision, will now have to re-open negotiations if it is to implement its proposed fire services outsourcing—a key fulcrum in its proposed plan of debt adjustment: a plan through which the city had anticipated operating and capital savings, as well as new parcel tax revenues, which would have increased annual general fund revenues by $12 million. The rocky road to exiting municipal bankruptcy also demonstrated the dysfunction created by the city’s fiscal year, throwing off the finely honed timeline under which the proposed outsourcing would have become by July 1. Missing that deadline means waiting 12 months for the beginning of the next fiscal year. If there is one fiscal ray of hope, it is that Judge Jury determined San Bernardino could continue negotiating an interim contract with the San Bernardino County fire district and working through the annexation process required by the Local Agency Formation Commission for San Bernardino County.

The legal setback for the city could make its road to exiting bankruptcy steeper, as San Bernardino’s integrity also appeared to be at risk. While Judge Jury claimed she was uninterested in assigning blame with regard to the negotiation breakdown between San Bernardino and its fire union, telling the courtroom the future should instead be the focus, she was critical of San Bernardino’s claim that it had met about fire outsourcing—a claim Judge Jury found to be contradicted by the city’s own evidence: According to a transcript of a meeting last October at which the city said it had negotiated over outsourcing, for instance, labor attorney Linda Daube and City Manager Allen Parker both say multiple times that contracting out is not part of the proposal they were discussing, with Mr. Parker, according to the transcript, stating: “I am in no position to even recommend that.” That meeting preceded last October’s imposition of new terms of employment on the city’s firefighters, terms which Judge Jury had ruled the city could implement, albeit, as she put it, she had not ruled on the specifics with regard to what the city imposed—adding that, once that happened, San Bernardino, essentially, had used up what she referred to as its “free pass” that municipal bankruptcy gave it to change contracts without going through the normally required process: “Once they have changed the terms and conditions of employment…my reading is they have created then a new status quo, and if they want to modify it further, then they have to modify it under state law, which would require bargaining with the union.”

Judge Jury further noted it was “suspect” that San Bernardino reported in September that it had authorized the city manager in an April closed session meeting to request proposals to provide fire services. But, Judge Jury, who has prior experience representing cities before becoming a judge, said that under California’s open meeting law, the Brown Act, that decision would normally be made in open session —and actions taken during closed session are usually reported publicly immediately afterward — not months later, after a litigant says authorization was never given, adding: “The timing of this is disturbing…It would appear that that (purported closed session vote) was not done, but I can’t make a finding on that today.” In the courtroom, fire union attorney Corey Glave said he might argue that San Bernardino had violated the Brown Act provision which mandates city council approval of contracts over $25,000—adding that because of that the Request for Proposals was improperly issued and would have to be discarded, he would testify at a hearing next week whether the union would pursue that argument. That created still another uh-oh moment, with Judge Jury telling the courtroom that if she agrees with that claim, it could set the city’s municipal bankruptcy case back months—meaning the prohibitively expensive municipal bankruptcy will almost certainly become the longest in American history, and leading Judge Jury to note: “I take this ruling very seriously…“I understand it has a significant impact on this case, and it’s probably the first time I’ve ruled in such a way against the city.”

Steepening Hurdles to Bankruptcy Completion. The timeline setback—and diminution of assets that might be available to be divvied up under a revised San Bernardino plan of debt adjustment can only make more miserable some of San Bernardino’s other creditors, for now the wait will not just be longer, but the assets available under any revised plan of debt adjustment are certain to be smaller. So it can hardly come as a surprise that municipal bond insurers—who now stand to be on the hook for ever increasing amounts—are objecting to San Bernardino’s just sent back to the cleaners proposed plan of debt adjustment. Paul Aronzon, of municipal bond insurer Ambac, filing for his client, wrote, referring to the pre-rejected plan of debt adjustment: “The long-awaited plan is a hodgepodge of unimpaired classes and settlements in various stages – some finalized, some announced but not yet documented, and some that are hinted at, but appear to be more aspirational than real, at this point.” Ambac could be on the hook for its insurance for some $50 million in pension obligation bonds. Fellow worrier and insurer, Erste Europäische Pfandbrief-und Kommunalkreditbank AG (EEPK) attorneys fretted too, claiming San Bernardino proposed “an incomplete set of solutions” based upon “internally inconsistent, and stale, data.” Ambac’s attorneys, referring to the now tossed out plan of debt adjustment’s proposed/anticipated savings from outsourcing fire services and other revenue sources, which the municipal bond insurers claim were not considered in calculating the impairment to the city’s pension bondholders, adding that San Bernardino had not justified the need for $185 million in capital investments to the city’s infrastructure and that the municipality had failed to include $3.9 million in income from the sale of assets to be transferred to the city from its redevelopment successor agency. But they saved their greatest vitriol to claim that the most remarkable feature of San Bernardino’s now partially rejected plan of debt adjustment came from the city’s proposed “draconian” impairment of both the pension obligation bond claims and general unsecured claims, on which the city has proposed to pay roughly 1 penny on the dollar, according to Ambac’s attorneys. EEPK’s attorneys told the federal court that if San Bernardino had utilized its ability to raise sales and use taxes or even parking taxes, it would be able to repay the city’s pension obligation debt in full, or at least substantially more than the 1 percent offered, noting that the severity of the discount warranted explanation. Nevertheless, EEPK’s attorneys added, “[N]owhere does the disclosure statement even attempt to articulate how or why the city formulated the oppressive treatment it proposes for these classes,” in urging Judge Jury to reject the plan—adding that : “In short, the city must be held to its twin burdens of both disclosure and proof that its plan endeavors to pay creditors as much as the city can reasonably afford, not as little as the city thinks it can get away with…The city can and should do better for its creditors — and indeed must do so if its plan is to be confirmed.”

Bankruptcy Protection? The Obama administration late last week urged Congress to move precipitously to address Puerto Rico’s debt crisis, with U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew stating: “Congress must act now to provide Puerto Rico with access to a restructuring regime…Without federal legislation, a resolution across Puerto Rico’s financial liabilities would likely be difficult, protracted, and costly.” The warning came in the wake of Puerto Rican elected leaders warning the U.S. territory might be insolvent by the end of the year—and with Congress only scheduled to meet for portions of eight weeks before the end of the year. In the Treasury letter to Congressional leaders, Sec. Lew appeared to hint the Administration is proposing to go beyond the municipal bankruptcy legislation proposed to date: rather, any Congressional action should, effectively, treat the Commonwealth in a manner to the way municipalities are under current federal law, so that Puerto Rico, as well as its municipalities, would be eligible to restructure through a federal, judicially overseen process—or, as Secretary Lew wrote to U.S. Sen. Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) in July, “a central element of any federal response should include a tested legal bankruptcy regime that enables Puerto Rico to manage its financial challenges in an orderly way.”

The Rocky Fiscal Road to Recovery. Wayne County’s road to emergency fiscal recovery was helped by a Wayne County Circuit Court decision denying a request from a union representing more than 2,500 Wayne County workers to block any wage and benefit changes made under the county’s consent agreement with the state, but fiscally threatened by the County’s recent disclosure that the IRS is conducting a targeted audit of $200 million of bonds—a problem, because, as Moody’s moodily notes: the fiscally stressed largest county in Michigan could face a hard time covering the full costs of the bond payments were the bonds deemed taxable. The denial came in the wake of a Wayne Circuit Court restraining order last week to block wage and benefits changes for Wayne County Sheriff Supervisory Local 3317 union’s affiliates, last week. The decision, according to county officials, “[P]ermit Wayne County to continue its restructuring efforts and move closer to ending the financial emergency.” In its suit, the union had alleged the defendants “have illegally bound themselves by a ‘consent agreement’ with the state’s Executive Branch,” and that “protected and accrued benefits will be dramatically slashed or terminated, contrary to the U.S. Constitution.” The successful appeal comes in the wake of the county’s budget action last week to eliminate what it estimates is left of Wayne County’s $52 million structural deficit; the budget decreases Wayne’s unfunded health care liabilities by 76 percent, reduces the need to divert funds from departments to cover general fund expenditures and, mayhap most critically, creates a pathway to solvency. On the investigation front, however, the county’s recent disclosure that the IRS is conducting a targeted audit of $200 million of bonds is, according to Moody’s, not such good news; rather it is a credit blow for Wayne—to which Moody’s currently assigns the junk-rating of Ba3. The audit involves some $200 million of recovery zone economic development bonds Wayne County issued in 2010 to finance construction of a jail in downtown Detroit—a jail which has subsequently been halted amid cost overruns—and municipal bonds for which the county currently receives a federal subsidy equal to 45% of annual interest payments on the bonds. As Moody’s moodily notes: “The [IRS] examination is credit negative, because it raises the possibility that the county will have to repay $37 million of previously received subsidies and lose $41 million of subsidies over the next five years,” or, as Moody’s analyst Matthew Butler succinctly put it: “Such a loss would further strain the county’s weak but improving fiscal condition,” adding that “Due to statutory limitations on revenue raising, the county would not be able to raise revenue for the increased interest cost.” Mr. Butler gloomily added: “[M]anagement would be challenged in offsetting the loss by implementing further cuts beyond the significant operating cuts already made.” Unsurprisingly, the jail in question has its own financially sordid history: undertaken by former Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano, the fiscal undertaking had led to the indictment of Wayne County’s former CFO and two others connected to the project for misconduct and willful neglect of duty tied to the jail financing. Unsurprisingly, current Wayne County Executive Warren Evans has said that addressing the failed project is his top priority after eliminating the structural deficit. That is a fiscal blight for which successful action is important not just to Wayne County, but also for Detroit.

A Big Hill of Debt to Climb. Hillview, the Kentucky home rule-class city of just over 8,000 in Bullitt County—which filed for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy last month—has been anticipating that Truck America LLC—the municipality’s largest creditor–would “aggressively” challenge the city’s petition—where objections must be filed by a week from Thursday—reports, according to City Attorney Tammy Baker in her discussions with the Bond Buyer, that Hillview plans no restructuring of any of its municipal bonds in its proposed plan of debt adjustment. The small municipality is on the losing side of a court judgment to Truck America for $11.4 million plus interest—a debt significantly larger than the $1.78 million it owes as part of a 2010 pool bond issued by the Kentucky Bond Corp. and $1.39 million in outstanding general obligation bonds Hillview issued in 2010. Nevertheless, City Attorney Tammy Baker advised The Bond Buyer Hillview “does not intend to restructure any of its outstanding municipal bonds through the filing.” The U.S. bankruptcy court’s acceptance of the municipality’s filing triggered the automatic stay on any city obligations, thereby protecting Hillview’s ability to retain some $3,759 in interest payments to the company which have been accruing each and every day on its outstanding trucking debt. According to the city’s filing, the judgment, plus interest totaled $15 million that is due in full—an amount equivalent to more than five times the municipality’s annual revenues. Nonetheless, Moody’s opines that Hillview could face an uphill battle in the federal bankruptcy court in convincing the court that it is insolvent and, thereby, eligible for chapter 9, because, as the credit rating agency notes: “Generally, a municipality must prove that it is not paying its debts on time or is unable to pay the obligations as they become due.” But Moody’s notes the small city could raise its property and/or business license taxes—or it could even issue more debt to finance its obligations to TruckAmerica.

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.