The Steep Road Out of Municipal Bankruptcy

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November 9, 2015. Share on Twitter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yet.

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

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

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

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Municipal Fiscal Transparency & Democracy

October 21, 2015. Share on Twitter

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

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

A Steepening Road to Municipal Recovery

October 9, 2015

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

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

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

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

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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.

Schooling in Municipal Bankruptcy

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August 27, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

The Teeter Totter between Voters & Municipal Fiscal Sustainability

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August 25, 2015

Averting Bankruptcy Dismissal. The San Bernardino City Council yesterday voted 4-3 to move ahead in transferring responsibility for fire and emergency protection to the San Bernardino County Fire Department—an action that automatically triggered a new, $142-per-year tax on every parcel in the city—with the Council’s vote corresponding to the bankrupt city’s plan of debt adjustment pending before U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury. Unsurprisingly, there has been strong citizen opposition to contracting out for fire services—and this is an election year. Nevertheless, city leaders made clear they believe San Bernardino’s credibility in the federal bankruptcy court, and its ability to obtain approval for its proposed plan of debt adjustment required it to be consistent—as well as referencing that between the reduced costs from contracting out and new tax revenues, the city would realize as much as $11-15 million in annual savings. In addition, City Attorney Paul Glassman had warned the Mayor and Council that if the city failed to meet the terms of its own proposed plan of debt adjustment, San Bernardino would risk having its bankruptcy dismissed by Judge Jury—a dismissal that would almost immediately jeopardize the city’s ability to continue to provide essential public services—or, as Mr. Glassman told the Council: “This would have a catastrophic effect on the city such that it could not go on as an ongoing entity.” Nevertheless, the close vote reflected apprehension from Councilmembers who expressed apprehension that the proposed changes might not only jeopardize public safety, but also hurt the city’s already suffering economy. Councilman John Valdivia, speaking against the measure, told his colleagues that his constituents were strongly opposed to the new tax, adding: “We’re not here to bail the city out, one more dime.” Councilman Henry Nickel, who together with Councilmember Valdivia and Councilman Benito Barrios, opposing the proposal, after the meeting warned that San Bernardino was losing what little goodwill it had from citizens who will be asked to approve other taxes as part of the recovery plan.

The bare majority gave the green light to authorize San Bernardino city staff to begin negotiating with San Bernardino County and the County Fire District over the terms of the annexation—at the end of which another City Council vote will follow—a process that City Manager Allen Parker told the elected leaders could take 60 days. Even if the proposal gets to the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) in 60 days, there would still be no guarantee it will be approved by July 2016, possibly meaning it might not receive formal approval until FY2017: the Commission will have to study the proposal, hold public meetings, and make decisions on it. So even though it will not be subject to a citizen vote in the county, it is not clear what citizens’ reactions and pressure on San Bernardino County elected officials might be. In addition, if 50 percent of registered voters in San Bernardino protest, the proposal would fail. Protests from 25 to 50 percent of voters (or at least 25 percent of the landowners, who also own at least 25 percent of the assessed land value within the city) would trigger an election, according to LAFCO annexation rules.

The Sharing Economy? As state and local leaders know, the art of legislating is not unlike making spaghetti, and so it is that state leaders in Lansing—as part of an effort to help finance Michigan’s transportation infrastructure—have been considering a proposal to help make whole Detroit’s single most important source of municipal revenue: its income taxes—taxes which in 2012 made up about 21 percent of the city’s total revenue. That requires addressing a persistent gap in the law which does not provide authority to require suburban employers of Detroit residents to collect and remit the city’s income taxes. According to the Citizen’s Research Council, in 2011, 38 percent of Detroit residents worked in the city, while 62 percent of city residents were employed in the suburbs. With the House considering surface transportation legislation the Michigan Senate approved last month—a major road funding proposal that could double fuel taxes over four years and eventually raise up to $1.7 billion a year in new revenue for infrastructure—the House has been considering, as part of such a measure—amending the legislation to include a provision to provide authority for new state legislation designed to help Detroit collect city income taxes from residents who commute to the suburbs—but only for Detroit: not for the other 21 municipalities which also rely on municipal income taxes: Albion, Battle Creek, Big Rapids, Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, Grayling, Hamtramck, Highland Park, Hudson, Ionia, Jackson, Lansing, Lapeer, Muskegon, Muskegon Heights, Pontiac, Port Huron, Portland, Saginaw, Springfield, and Walker. Under the pending proposal, on behalf of which Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan testified, suburban employers would be required to withhold Motor City income taxes from paychecks of Detroit residents—except for businesses with fewer than 10 employees and less than $500,000 in wages. An alternative would authorize the state to use audit and penalty procedures when it takes over Detroit’s income tax collection in 2016. The Republican-led House Tax Policy Committee has approved legislation which would require suburban employers to withhold Detroit city income taxes from residents’ paychecks, but the outcome will have to await full legislative consideration: The Senate was in session last week, but did not take attendance, votes or introduce bills. Neither the Senate nor the House is expected back in Lansing until after Labor Day.

Any final legislative action by the legislature next month could also face concerns by municipal leaders from the other 21 municipalities which levy personal income taxes—indeed, Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell last week made clear he was “flummoxed” that Grand Rapids and 20 other communities were omitted from the legislation, noting he was “caught off guard,” adding he thought “We (referring to all 22 cities) were all on the same page about this,” noting he had met with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and several of the other communities that charge an income tax about ways to make collection a requirement for suburban employers. Grand Rapids is one of the exceptions in Michigan in that it collects income tax at a rate of 1.5 percent for residents and 0.75 percent for nonresidents who work in the city. The majority of the 22 cities impose an income tax of 1 percent on residents and 0.5 percent on nonresidents. Detroit has the highest rate with its residents who live and work in the city paying 2.4 percent; nonresidents who work in the city pay 1.2 percent. Eric Lupher, President of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, said his organization supports equality for all, suggesting that every one of the state’s 276 cities should require employers to withhold city income taxes from employees: “The solution to the problem at hand is if you live or work in a city, then employers need to withhold tax from you…It shouldn’t apply only to cities with populations of 600,000 or more (such as Detroit)…The other thing is we don’t want to create disincentives to living in the cities…Most of the Michigan cities are down-and-up cities. They all are trying to revitalize themselves and be attractive in getting people to move there.”

Holy Cosmos! Fitch became the second credit-rating agency this week to upgrade Wayne County, removing the County’s negative rating watch from some Wayne County municipal bonds and terming Wayne County’s rating outlook “stable,” adding that the County’s approval of a consent agreement with the state to address its financial emergency was a step not only towards improving the county’s credit, but also to improving Wayne County’s fiscal outlook. Under the terms of the agreement, Wayne County Executive Warren Evans is granted the powers of an emergency manager in contract talks with the county’s unions—and, should the two sides be unable to achieve a consensus in good-faith negotiations 30 days after the consent agreement went into effect, he is authorized to impose terms such as lower wages, pension cuts, and employee contribution increases—all as part of a state-local effort to address a $52 million structural deficit—a deficit triggered by a $100 million drop in annual property tax revenue since 2008. Adding to the deficit, the county still has to contend with a significantly underfunded public pension system—as much as $910.5 million, according to the latest actuarial reports.

First Chapter 9 since Detroit. Hillview, a small (pop. just over 8,000) home rule-class city in Bullitt County, Kentucky, about 17 miles south of Louisville, has filed for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy in the first chapter 9 filing by a municipality since Detroit’s filing more than two years’ ago—making the small city the 65th to file for bankruptcy in more than six decades. The city in Bullitt County about 17 miles south of Louisville listed assets of under $10 million and liabilities between $50 million and $100 million in its bankruptcy petition. Kentucky is one of 12 states which conditionally authorize municipal bankruptcy; however, Kentucky counties are not authorized to file for municipal bankruptcy protection unless the state local debt officer and state local finance officer have first approved said county’s plan of debt adjustment. The legal action was triggered by an $11.4 million judgment against the city for breach of contract after years of protracted litigation over a land sale—and after the municipality had been unable to reach any settlement agreement. Truck America Training LLC prevailed (see City of Hillview v. Truck America Training, No. 2012-CA-001910-MR.) Court of Appeals, Kentucky, March 7, 2014.), gaining an $11.4 million judgment for breach of contract against the city over a land sale. The judgment became final last March, after the Kentucky Supreme Court declined to review the case. Hillview, in its bankruptcy filing, listed assets of under $10 million versus liabilities between $50 million and $100 million. The city’s unsecured claims include $1.39 million of outstanding general obligation bonds issued in 2010, and $1.78 million of debt which is part of a pool bond issued by the Kentucky Bond Corp. in 2010 and operated by the Kentucky League of Cities. The decision to opt for municipal bankruptcy came in the wake of the city’s decision not to accept Truck America’s most recent settlement offer of approximately 40 cents on the dollar. To put those numbers in context, Hillview had total revenues of $2.7 million in FY2014, and a fund balance of $659,723 at the end of the year, according to its 2014 audit. Moreover, in addition to the judgment accumulating interest at 12% per year, the audit determined that Hillview had no insurance coverage available for the breach of contract litigation. S&P, last February, had downgraded Hillview’s full faith and credit GO bonds four notches to BB-plus, citing the judgment, as well as fiscal apprehensions with regard to the municipality’s FY2014 audit. In its analysis, S&P had included an examination of whether the Hillview could issue municipal bonds to pay the Truck America judgment, noting: “We believe the city has legally available options apart from [municipal] bankruptcy.”

Municipal Bankruptcy & The Role of Intergovernmental Relations

August 18, 2015

Municipal Bankruptcy, Intergovernmental Relations, & Democracy. The San Bernardino City Council voted 4-2 late Monday to appropriate over half a million dollars to fund a new community center on the bankrupt city’s Westside—notwithstanding apprehensions the city might not be allowed to use the modular that will now be used for that purpose, much less concerns about how it might affect the city’s already difficult relations with the state. The center, once constructed, is intended to provide classes on aerobics, Zumba, nutrition, mental health, and English as a second language, in addition to partnering on other services. The financing is not to come from the bankrupt city’s general fund, but rather from the city’s CDBG grants. But it was only after a citizen at the session raised a question—after the first of the two votes needed to approve the center—that there appeared to be some recognition of a problem. The citizen asked how it was that that since the state had taken control of redevelopment how it was the Council could “wonder why the state is mad at you, you wonder why the state doesn’t want to help you? Maybe listen to yourselves, and wonder, ‘What am I doing?’” Indeed, City Manager Allen Parker responded to a follow-up question to staff that last year, when the city had requested the California Department of Finance to transfer redevelopment assets — items such as desks, computers, and this $158,000 modular, which the city-controlled agency had used until the statewide shut-down — to San Bernardino so the city could control them: the request had been rejected. The response triggered two Councilmembers to change their votes from aye to nay, with Councilmember Henry Nickel noting: “We have some very delicate negotiations going on with the state right now…The last thing I want to do is upset them. I want to be very clear on the legal ramifications of taking a $150,000-plus asset and using that for city use.” Notwithstanding, the rest kept their votes unchanged, demonstrating one of the many intergovernmental challenges that confront the city as it seeks to put together a plan of debt adjustment for the U.S. bankruptcy court’s approval, even as—in an election year—it must continue to govern the municipality. Indeed, community members have been asking for the community center since the city promised it before the state’s dissolution of the redevelopment agency.

As we have previously noted, the uneasy relationship between California cities and the state has played an important role in San Bernardino’s municipal bankruptcy, whether it be the suit filed by the state’s California retirement agency (CalPERS) for non-payment of the city’s prescribed contribution to the state’s public retirement system for its employees, or the—to this point—takeover and dissolution of local redevelopment agencies in 2012, a takeover at least in some part triggered by disagreement as to whether cities were consistently using the revenues from these redevelopment agencies as originally intended. More broadly, of course, the withdrawal of most California state direct financial aid to cities, which commenced some three decades ago in the wake of Proposition 13, has not only negatively impacted most cities in the state, but especially poorer cities such as San Bernardino—with fiscal insult added to injury via California’s redirection of some non-state revenues to specific programs including education and public safety, thereby shifting the expenditure burden from the state to its cities. State aid constitutes a very small percentage of revenue for cities in California—2% in the case of San Bernardino. This minute amount does little to even out disparities in fiscal capacity and need for cities such as San Bernardino. State actions in recent years—including changes in the motor vehicle license taxes and redevelopment agencies— have only served to exacerbate, rather than ameliorate San Bernardino’s fiscal problems.

The Painful Cost of Recovery. Notwithstanding some of the unique and fiscally creative partnerships engineered as part of the resolution of the Motor City’s record municipal bankruptcy recovery, Detroit will find that getting back on its four wheels will come at a high price: the city is expected to have to pay interest rates close to 5 percent in its maiden return to the municipal bond market on its sale set for tomorrow of some $245 million in bonds—the city’s first sale since emerging from municipal bankruptcy. The sale, which will be done through the Michigan Finance Authority, will provide that bondholders will have the first claim on Detroit’s income tax revenues, so as to ensure investors in the recovering city are repaid. Ergo, the 14-year bonds are being marketed at an initial yield of 4.75 percent, according to persons familiar with the sale, some 2.1 percentage points more than top-rated municipal securities. The high cost to Detroit’s taxpayers and the city’s budget is a reflection of the significant cuts the city’s g.o. bondholders received as part of the court-approved plan of debt adjustment, nearly a 60 percent reduction. Nevertheless, for the city—in stark contrast to virtual bankruptcy in state-local fiscal relations in California (please see above)—this is a key factor in the likely successful sale tomorrow: Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, together the bipartisan leadership of the state leadership, enacted legislation to provide prospective Detroit municipal bondholders first claim to the Motor City’s income taxes—an innovative step to help in the city’s recovery—and one which earned an A rating for tomorrow’s sale from S&P–nine levels higher than its grade on Detroit’s general obligations. Moody’s, in mayhap a surprisingly upbeat mode, noted that Detroit’s employment has risen 3 percent over the past four years; more generously, the rating agency wrote that the Motor City’s income tax revenue rose 18 percent from 2010 to 2015. The proceeds from this week’s sale are intended to be devoted to repayment of a loan from Barclays plc that was a key to the city’s emergence from bankruptcy, as well as to help finance city projects, including upgrades for the fire department’s fleet. S&P wrote that Detroit’s income tax collections are strong enough to cover the bonds.

Arriba! The Puerto Rico Treasury Department reports that last month’s General Fund tax revenues for the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico came in 3.5% higher than budgeted, with sales and use tax collections coming in at a rate more than ten times (35.7%) greater than those for a year ago. The increased revenues included $21.1 million more than projected for the island’s General Fund. But the most significant increase came from individual income taxes: some $7.2 million more than projected, as well as foreign corporation excise taxes ($4.6 million ahead), and alcoholic beverage taxes ($4.5 million above projections). The biggest shortfall was for motor vehicle taxes, at $2.7 million. No doubt, the increase in the territory’s sales and use tax revenues was due in no small part to the rate rise from 7 to 11.5% which went into effect last July 1st; nevertheless, the Treasury reported the increased rate only contributed about $8 million directly to the sales and use tax revenue increase of $40.6 million in July compared to one year earlier—moreover, as Puerto Rico Treasury Secretary Juan Zaragoza Gómez noted, the sales and use tax realized revenue increases might have been spurred by a rush-to-beat-the rate increase which went into effect July 1st. But Sec. Zaragoza Gómez also noted that Puerto Rico’s completion last May of the last phase of an Integrated Merchant Portal collection of sales and use taxes at ports also likely contributed to the improvement in these tax collections. Finally, the Secretary also noted the government had reached settlements for back sales and use taxes owed with several large retailers last month—adding: “These collection efforts will continue during the coming months.” The rising revenues from traditional tax sources came as a Puerto Rican study group has recommended going ahead with converting Puerto Rico’s sales and use tax to a value added tax effective April Fools’ Day next year.

Failing Grade. S&P downgraded the Windy City’s Chicago Public Schools three notches, finding that its proposed budget would do little to address either its structural or liquidity woes. The rating agency also removed the credit from CreditWatch with negative implications and assigned a negative outlook, with analyst Jennifer Boyd scholastically writing: “The rating action reflects our view of the proposed fiscal 2016 budget, which includes what we view as the [school] Board’s continued structural imbalance and low liquidity with a reliance on external borrowing for cash flow needs.” The poor grades appear to reflect the system’s increased reliance in its proposed $6.4 billion FY2016 budget on more than $300 million from one-time revenues, not to mention an almost mythical assumption that the stalemated Governor and state legislature will provide CPS with $480 million in public pension funding assistance this year to close a $1.1 billion deficit—or, as CEO Forrest Claypool put it: “This budget reflects the reality of where we are today — facing a squeeze from both ends — in which CPS is receiving less state funding to pay our bills even as our pension obligations swell to nearly $700 million this year.” The hopes from CPS come as the stalemate in Springfield over passage of the state’s FY2016 budget has shown little to no progress—even as Chicago’s kids are already, no doubt, dreading the September 2nd return to the classrooms. CPS’s proposed budget assumes Illinois will help assume almost $200 million in CPS pension contributions—not unreasonable, as that would be in line with what the state contributes on behalf of other districts. The package could also be made up by shifting $170 million of the teachers’ contribution now paid by the district over to teachers, extending a payment amortization period, and possibly higher property taxes. Further, CPS last month announced some $200 million in cuts in the wake, last month, of its failed efforts to delay its FY2015 pension payment. The budget also relies on $250 million of debt relief primarily from $200 million in so-called scoop and toss refunding in which principal payments coming due are pushed off. CPS is proposing to draw down $75 million from reserves. Unsurprisingly, S&P does its math differently than CPS: the rating agency questions the school system’s arithmetic, wondering how it all adds up, especially because of CPS’ reliance on $480 million in, to date, unsecured state assistance for debt restructuring and reserves, both non-recurring revenue sources, adding: “The rating is also based on our view of the challenges the board faces in attempting to secure a sustainable long-term solution to its financial pressures, given the state’s own financial problems reflected in the current budget stalemate, and the board’s fiscal 2016 budget proposal that shows the continuation of a structural imbalance even if the board gets the assistance from the state.” The challenged fiscal math has already exacted a cost: CPS is paying a premium to borrow: its most recent issuance came at a yield of 5.63 percent on 25-year bonds—and that even with not only the system’s full faith and credit pledge, but also security via an alternate revenue pledge of state aid. The convoluted math, S&P totes up, is further jeopardized by next year’s expiration of the district’s teachers’ contract.

August 13, 2015

Municipal Bankruptcy & Public Safety. In California alone, 16 wildfires are burning 229,713 acres. So it is unsurprising that citizens and their elected leaders in San Bernardino have a significant stake in ensuring that any plan of debt adjustment approved by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury ensures confidence, thereby guaranteeing there will be significant interest in the 28-page report (www.tinyurl.com/oraatpk) by fire consultant Citygate Associated the city released last night—a report recommending that the city’s fire department be annexed into the San Bernardino County Fire District. The report is consistent with the proposal recommended by San Bernardino City Manager Allen Parker; it is contrary to the position of the San Bernardino Fire Management Association. For both the city’s residents—and Judge Jury—the issue in bankruptcy is how to ensure the continuity of essential public services.  In its report to the city, Citygate evaluated the ability of three bidders — county fire, city fire, and Florida-based private firm Centerra — to meet certain key staffing standards. The report recommends San Bernardino County take over, under a plan which would include keeping 10 current city fire stations open, closing two, and adding the use of one additional county fire station, noting: “The best cost-to-services choice is County Fire’s Option C for 14 units and 41 firefighters (per shift) at $26,307,731 which includes sharing the use of a nearby County Fire station and Battalion Chief that can assist with covering part of the western City.” While the mere suggestion of privatizing or turning over control of a municipality’s fire department to another jurisdiction has traditionally been a sure fire road to unelection, it has actually become more prevalent in other parts of San Bernardino County and other areas in California. Indeed, San Bernardino Councilman Henry Nickel compared the modest opposition by constituents to the proposal to the outpouring of opposition when a community sent a robocall asking citizens to oppose privatizing the Fire Department, noting to the San Bernardino Sun yesterday: “My phone was literally on fire for two days…My voice mail filled up within about an hour of that robo call going out, and it took me two or three days to catch up. But since this article came out (outlining the report), I’ve received one phone call today regarding the county versus city debate…I think it’s very clear that Centerra is not something the public by and large supports, but — I hate to use the word resignation, but I think much of the public understands that the county medicine is probably the one we’ll have to take…It’s not something we want to do, but it’s something we might have to do.” City spokeswoman Monica Lagos posted a summary of the report and the city’s next steps here (www.tinyurl.com/pbogaxr). A special meeting, including a presentation of the report and a chance for resident comment, is scheduled for a week from Monday.

The uncontrollable nature of wildfires adds a combustible to the already complex challenge of elected leaders of a municipality in bankruptcy—with elections pending in November—creating a difficult balancing set of public as compared to campaign responsibilities. Unlike Donald Trump, the decision to file for bankruptcy for the city’s elected leaders is something no elected leader ever wants to do. And then the responsibility to approve a plan of debt adjustment to the federal bankruptcy court—even while contemplating a re-election campaign amidst the combustion of wildfires and politics is evidence of the extraordinary challenges and decisions ahead which will affect so many citizens—and their safety—not to mention the future of a city.

Jailhouse Rock. Wayne County’s elected leaders are scheduled to consider the proposed fiscal consent agreement between Michigan and the County today—an agreement intended to offer ways to improve Wayne County’s cash position, reduce underfunding in its pension system, and eliminate the county’s$52 million structural deficit—and be a governing alternative starkly different than in neighboring Detroit where the state preempted local authority through the appointment of an emergency manager. The consent agreement allows for the commission and Chairman Evans to “retain their respective authority.” The document has a number of highlighted sections on issues such as employee relations and changes that can be made to expired contracts, state financial management and technical assistance, and a prohibition against new debt unless approved by the State Treasurer. It also specifically mentions pension obligations and other employee contract commitments as at least a factor in the county’s financial troubles. But the major point of the agreement that will likely gain close scrutiny by many who work for the county is the authority it grants Chairman Evans to act as the sole agent of the county in collective bargaining with employees or representatives and approve any contract or agreement. The agreement will also address—and affect—the county’s jails, whose conditions have already been the subject of a court order this year, as Wayne County—and jail host Detroit—consider the future of the unfinished facility. In its review of Wayne County’s finances, the state noted the county’s unfinished jail and its $4.5 billion in long-term obligations as problems that need to be addressed, and mandated Wayne County to put together a plan to “adequately meet the county’s needs for adult detention facilities…” The County’s elected leaders, who are scheduled to discuss the agreement tomorrow, have just over three weeks in which to approve the document—an agreement which Wayne County Chairman Warren Evans very much hopes will be the key to resolving the county’s structural debt and unsustainable fiscal future: the proposed recovery plan lays out $230 million in cuts over four years.

Whether and how the plan will get the County and Detroit out from behind the fiscal bars will be a subset—but one with critical implications for the future relationship of the two jurisdictions, as well as for the county’s fiscal sustainability. The jail—in downtown Detroit on which Wayne County broke ground for construction four years ago—is an exceptional fiscal millstone: some two years after construction was halted because of ballooning expenses, the failed Wayne County jail project is still costing taxpayers more than $1 million a month. The plan was to build a $300-million state-of-the-art jail in downtown Motown four years ago—a plan which today features a costly pile of steel and concrete — fenced and guarded — with construction costs of $151 million, and an ever growing fiscal tab for county taxpayers of an average of $1.2 million every month. Thus, not only is the jail a sticking point between the two jurisdictions, but also a severe fiscal drain—or as the County described the situation last May: “Due to the county’s financial state, anything done on the Gratiot jail will just add to the deficit. Once the deficit has been solved, the county can move forward with options on whether to finish the Gratiot site or renovate the three existing jails. As the county makes progress on its recovery plan, it will better be able to solve the jail issue.” Worse, it appears that much of the debt issued by Wayne County for the jail’s construction has been diverted for other purposes—meaning Wayne County is spending as much as $1.2 million each month from its general fund. According to County officials, only $49 million remains from the $200 million in bonds Wayne County sold to finance the unfinished jail—a borrowing forcing the county to make interest payments on of $1.1 million monthly—even as it is spending nearly $55,000 each month on unfinished jail-related costs, including: security ($10,849), sump pump maintenance ($12,852), and electricity to the site ($4,000).