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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Complexities of Democracy & Municipal Bankruptcy

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October 29, 2015. Share on Twitter

Complexities of Democracy & Municipal Bankruptcy. With election day just around the corner, San Bernardino Mayor Carey Davis spent an evening with constituents answering questions, including the inevitable ones about the status of the municipality’s 2012 municipal bankruptcy filing—where the city’s plan of adjustment has long since missed the deadline for submission set by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury—and where, of course, next week’s election, if there are changes, could create still further disruption. Indeed, Mayor Davis admitted, in response to several residents’ questions, that San Bernardino is not there yet and confronts hard choices in putting together making further “haircuts” before its plan will be ready. Speaking to about 30 residents at Jovi’s Diner for his second “Evening with the Mayor,” he offered updates on key issues—and sought input. He discussed what he termed “seven strategies” the city had identified over the course of five strategic planning sessions or community meetings the city’s leaders had convened with citizens earlier this year, in an effort, he said, to demonstrate the impact community input can have, noting: “As a result of that process, public safety is a top priority of the recovery plan,” noting the city has hired more police, created a park ranger program, and used federal grants to purchase police body cameras and new patrol cars. (See: http://www.city-data.com/crime/crime-San-Bernardino-California.html). Nevertheless, as can be discerned from the data, the challenge of public safety remains, as the Mayor noted, an issue: “Our police are very engaged in trying to eradicate some of the problems in our community, but they’re overwhelmed at times with the heavy call volume.” On the related public safety front, Mayor Davis said the city was continuing in its efforts to outsource or regionalize emergency fire and rescue services with surrounding San Bernardino County, noting: “We’re working through the hoops and hurdles, but we hope to have that done probably by July of next year.” One of the hurdles has been the legal and political challenge by the fire union—a challenge with which Judge Jury has previously concurred with San Bernardino’s fire union was done without required negotiation. Nevertheless, the city and the Local Agency Formation Commission for San Bernardino County, the commission which is in charge of approving San Bernardino’s efforts to annex itself into the San Bernardino County Fire Protection District voted unanimously last month to make that and two related applications its top priority—a focus meant to ensure the annexation process can be completed by next July 1st for the applicants, which include San Bernardino, the Twenty-nine Palms Water District, and Hesperia Fire Protection District. Mayor Davis also pointed out other signs of progress, including the San Manuel Gateway College, a project of Loma Linda University Health with an expected 2016 completion date, which the Mayor reports will create career paths for local students while increasing the number of patient visits nearly tenfold from 30,000 to 200,000 per year. He said the city had issued more than 2,000 new business licenses over the last year—and that, for the first time in decades, the San Bernardino City Unified School District had registered higher graduation rates—and that the city’s Middle College High School had ranked ninth among California’s nearly 2,000 schools.

The Human Side of Municipal Bankruptcy. The bankruptcies of Central Falls and Detroit, perhaps more than any others, and the significant human and fiscal costs, appear to have been central to the exceptional efforts Wayne County, the jurisdiction encompassing and surrounding Detroit, has taken to avoid going into municipal bankruptcy—steps including reducing retirement health care benefits and transferring some of its retirees from employer-paid group health care to a system under which they will receive a monthly stipend enabling purchase of a plan on the federal Health Insurance Marketplace or a plan through the insurance company Wayne County has contracted with to manage the day-to-day administration of the stipend program. The seemingly harsh steps came in the wake of the State of Michigan’s declaration of a financial emergency in the county—a declaration short of municipal bankruptcy, but which triggered a consent agreement between Wayne County and the state which gives Wayne County Executive Warren Evans some powers normally made available only to emergency managers. It seems the experience with the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history has yielded some lessons learned which could be valuable to Michigan’s taxpayers, and Wayne County’s future. Nevertheless, there will be costs. That is to write that Wayne County continues to grapple with a recurring budgetary shortfall that stems from the steep, $100 million annual drop in property tax revenues since 2008. Wayne County officials have been able to drop the deficit be nearly half—nearly $30 million from a $52 million structural deficit. For the longer term challenge, the county faces an underfunded pension system, underfunded by $910.5 million, according to its most recent actuarial report—an underfunding which has been bleeding Wayne County’s general fund by about $20 million annually to prevent it from going under. That is, with the unique authority conferred by the state, the County has been acting with conferred state authority to take extraordinary fiscal steps to avert going into municipal bankruptcy—steps under which Mr. Evans last April announced a plan to cut $230 million from the budget over four years, including reducing health care benefits for employees, eliminating health care for future retirees, and restructuring the pension system—with the transition set to begin at the end of next month when the current health care plan ends and the new one takes effect on the first of December. County officials estimate some 4,000 retirees will be eligible. As James Canning, a Wayne County spokesperson noted: “We understand change is never easy…But moving from employer-paid health care to a stipend program was necessary to improve the long-term financial health of the county. We really appreciate our retirees’ understanding as we move through this process.” The plan also means health care benefits for the county’s current retirees will be affected: Wayne County officials switched an employer-paid group health care plan for retirees to giving them a monthly stipend—and has, in an effort to try to help its retirees through the wrenching process—hosted 13 informational meetings for retirees at sites across Metro Detroit in recent weeks, as well as set up an 800-number and a website at http://waynecounty.amwins.com/ to answer retirees’ questions about their health care benefits. Under the plan, Wayne County employees who retired before 2007 and are eligible for Medicare will receive a $130 monthly stipend for themselves and one for eligible spouses. Wayne County employees who retired before 2007 and are not Medicare eligible will receive a monthly stipend based on their household income: e.g., a retiree with a spouse or single dependent and who earns less than $35,000 a year, will receive a $150 monthly stipend; a retiree with a spouse who earns between $35,000 and $65,000 will receive $300 a month. Under the plan, retirees may buy insurance through a broker or an independent agent, or directly from an insurance carrier, or obtain coverage through a spouse’s employer. Prior to this change, as in many cities and counties, retirees paid a minimal amount out of their own pockets for health care. In Wayne County, for instance, most county retirees paid about $90 per month for coverage for themselves, two people or a family with Blue Cross or Health Alliance Plan under last year’s benefits structure, according to the county. Retirees in the supervisory unit paid about $44 a month for single coverage, $104 for two people and $122 for a family. In addition, county retirees paid a yearly deductible of $500 for themselves and $1,000 for a family. Co-pays for doctor’s visits ranged from $30 to 20 percent for general services from in-network health care providers. Under the new change, the county expects to realize savings of nearly $22 million in FY2015-16 alone. According to the County, effective this December 1st, the county will transfer about 4,000 retirees from employer-paid group health insurance to a monthly-stipend system. County employees who retired prior to 2007 and are Medicare-eligible will receive a monthly $130 stipend for themselves and one for spouses, if eligible; employees who retired before 2007 and are not Medicare-eligible will receive a monthly stipend based on their household income. Here is how it will impact county retirees who are not Medicare-eligible:

Single retiree:

■$100 for income less than $30,000
■$200 for income of $30,000-$45,000
■$400 for income $45,000-plus
Retiree and spouse or one dependent
■$150 for income less than $35,000
■$300 for income of $35,000-$65,000
■$750 for income of $65,000-plus
Family
■$150 for income less than $40,000
■$300 for income of $40,000-$55,000
■$400 for income of $55,000-$70,000
■$800 for income of $70,000-plus

Source: Wayne County

Down Under. Rene Vollgraaff and Xola Potelwa, writing for Bloomberg this week, noted that South Africa’s credit rating could drop to junk in “just a matter of time.” Fitch and Moody’s Investors Service, which rate the nation’s debt two steps above sub-investment, are set to bring their assessments in line with S&P’s at the lowest investment-grade level, noting that another step down would start triggering capital outflows. The cost of insuring South Africa’s dollar debt against default for five years has climbed 58 basis points in the past 12 months to 248, compared with the 142 median of five emerging-market economies with similar ratings at Moody’s and Fitch, and 215 for those rated one level lower. Weakening tax revenue is putting pressure on the country’s budget deficit, even as the country is close to a recession and confronting a 25 percent jobless rate. The budget deficit will widen from earlier forecasts, reaching 3.3 percent in the fiscal year through March 2017 and 3.2 percent in the following year. The federal government debt is projected to reach almost 50 percent of GDP this year. Having lived and worked in Africa—and visited Johannesburg last year, this national fiscal challenge, unsurprisingly, led me to apprehension about the fiscal fallout for the nation’s cities. A 2013 study by the South Africa Fiscal and Financial Commission grouped South Africa’s municipalities into three categories: fiscally neutral, fiscal watch, and fiscally distressed, based on short-term and long-term indicators. According to the short-term indicators, fiscally healthy municipalities decreased (from 34 per cent in 2011/12 to 24 per cent in 2012/13), and the number of municipalities in the fiscal watch and fiscally distressed categories increased. However, the long-term analysis revealed that a large percentage of municipalities are fiscally healthy, with the number of fiscal distressed municipalities remaining relatively low. The study recommended the federal government should develop an early warning system, which would detect municipalities heading towards fiscal distress. Once the probability of fiscal stress was detected, further investigation would be needed to identify the underlying root causes and frame appropriate and timely responses.

The question then becomes, what might that mean for South Africa’s cities? It was, after all, just three years ago that some 64 municipalities in that country were named on a list of financially distressed municipalities, where the report noted: “From evidence to date, it is clear that much of local government is indeed in distress, and that this state of affairs has become deeply rooted within our system of governance.” The assessments were designed to ascertain the root causes of distress in many of the country’s 283 municipalities in order to inform a national turn-around strategy for municipalities; they were carried out in all nine of South Africa’s provinces. One key finding was an overall vacancy rate of 12 percent for senior managers in local government, demonstrating the challenge—a challenge not unlike in many cities in the U.S.—of attracting the most competent managers—especially an issue for municipalities in distress, which often lack both the financial wherewithal, not to mention the budget to attract the top talent. Or, as the South African report found, insufficient municipal capacity due to lack of scarce skills, along with poor financial management, corruption, and service delivery delays all combined for disproportionate municipal fiscal instability and unsustainability. The report also found that the disparity in skills was exacerbated by the decline of municipal professional associations and poor linkages between local government and the tertiary education sector: “Functional overreach and complexity are forcing many municipalities into distress mode, exacerbated by the poor leadership and support from other spheres and stakeholders.” The report found that the distressed municipalities lacked financial and human resources to deliver on their mandate and citizens’ expectations. Or, as we wrote then: when we were in Johannesburg, the news reported: “Most people are not entirely clear about what the officials in this amorphous government department do all day long beyond, presumably, going to a great many meetings with various levels of government, chiefs and tribal councils, listening attentively, nodding sympathetically, and then going home to watch TV…but while the man in the pothole street might not be clear about the purpose and day-to-day functioning of cooperative governance…the minister of finance would have been acutely aware of the need to sort out local and provincial government where mayors and MEC’s buy themselves fancy 4X4’s from the public purse (even the provincial ambulance budget, if that’s what it takes), because their administrations either can’t or can’t be bothered to fix their roads….The job of cooperative governance minister might be less glamorous than divvying up the public sector kitty and deciding who gets taxed how much, but it is, in every sense, a real job, just one that hasn’t been done terribly well until now….”

Avoiding Municipal Insolvency, Except as a Last Resort

October 20, 2015. Share on Twitter

Avoiding Municipal Insolvency, Except as a Last Resort. Gov. Rick Snyder yesterday outlined a $715 million plan to split the Detroit Public School System (DPS) into two separate districts: a plan to both help improve academic performance, but also pay down more than a half billion dollars in DPS’s operating debt, marking the second time in six months that the governor has detailed plans to overhaul education in Detroit. Detroit Public Schools has lost close to 100,000 students over the past 10 years, according to Gov. Snyder’s office. The district has not yet released enrollment numbers for this school year, which were taken during a recent student count day, but it had about 47,000 students last year. Gov. Snyder would not say outright whether the alternative is taking DPS into bankruptcy, given the amount of state liability vested in the existing district. Rather, he said, this plan would avert the need for bankruptcy. Should the district default on its debt, Gov. Snyder said the cost to the state could soar beyond the $715 million expected over 10 years as the current school system pays back its debt: “I don’t use the bankruptcy word except as a very, very last resort…It is very reasonable and fair to say that compared to this solution, that solution could be much more expensive.”

Pensionary Complications. Gov. Snyder is seeking legislative action by the end of this year to create a $715 million, debt-free school district in the Motor City over the next decade, meaning the current district would exist only to pay off the debt, noting in his presentation: “This package provides an answer that’s rational, that’s comprehensive, that is lower cost and much less chaotic than the other alternatives.” A key issue confronting the school system is its nearly $100 million liability to Michigan’s school employee pension system—a debt of such proportions that a judge could be petitioned to order DPS or the state to pay up—an order, were it to be issued, which could trigger higher property taxes for the city of Detroit or an emergency bailout by the Legislature. Gov. Snyder warned the state could be on the hook for DPS’ $1.5 billion unfunded pension liability if lawmakers are unable to stabilize the district’s finances by assuming a projected $515 million in operating debt payments that were mostly racked up by state-appointed emergency managers, noting: “That’s an unfunded liability that would get spread to the other districts if DPS wasn’t making payments…There’s a lot of extra money that would have to go out if this doesn’t get done.” Gov. Snyder’s dire warning came in anticipation of the long-expected introduction of legislation to create new layers of oversight of DPS in exchange for the state assuming the seemingly relentless growth in the system’s operating debt amassed by emergency managers in recent years—a debt the cost of which to pay off has now reached the equivalent of an annual cost of $50 for every child in Michigan. The accumulated operating debt of DPS is expected to top $515 million by June 2016. In his remarks, Gov. Snyder noted Michigan’s School Aid Fund can handle the roughly $70 million annual payment for the next decade without taking money away from other schools districts—that is, under his proposal, helping DPS would not have to come at the expense of other Michigan public school districts—a claim that might be semantical—as the ever insightful Citizens Research Council notes: “Clearly you’re taking money that would be available to other school districts to help a single school district.”

  • Costs. Under the Governor’s proposal, the new Detroit Community School District would need $200 million to cover $100 million in startup costs and initial capital improvements of facilities and $100 million to account for continued declining enrollment in the city. The new District would not be barred from seeking voter-approved millages for capital improvements unless and until the old district’s operating debt was paid off, and, according to John Walsh, Gov. Snyder’s strategy director, it is possible the $715 million figure could be reduced if Detroit’s economy continues to rebound, businesses relocate to the city, and property tax collections continue to increase, adding; “With property values going up, it could take less time to pay off.” Michigan’s contribution to Detroit’s federally approved plan of debt adjustment amounted to $350 million spread over 20 years—a state contribution which Mr. Walsh led, at the time, as a key leader in the Michigan House—leadership which will be critical for what is anticipated to be a “tough sell in the Legislature.” Moreover, such a new Detroit school district would still be liable for paying down the $1.5 billion in the system’s unfunded pension liabilities—with Gov. Snyder resisting the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren’s call for DPS to be exempted from continuing to pay its share of pension costs for current and former employees. As of last week, DPS was $99.5 million behind in public pension payments to the Michigan Public School Employee Retirement System—a debt exacerbated by $100,000 in monthly late fees and $12,000 in daily in interest penalties, according to state’s Office of Retirement Services.
  • Governance. Originally, the governor had proposed the creation of a new financial review commission to have oversight and veto power over spending decisions of the new school district in Detroit. In his revised plan, he is proposing to utilize the existing Financial Review Commission, which was created as part of the Detroit plan of debt adjustment, so that there would be long-term state oversight of Detroit’s finances. The Governor’s plan also retains another layer of oversight of all city schools in a Detroit Education Commission: it would entail hiring a chief education officer with the power to open and close academically failing schools run by DPS, charter schools, and the Education Achievement Authority. The commission’s membership would include three gubernatorial appointees and two mayoral appointees: it would be charged with streamlining some services for all schools, such as enrollment. But in the governor’s revised plan, he makes a common enrollment system voluntary. Gov. Snyder said he and Mayor Duggan are still discussing the mayor’s role in school reform in Detroit: Mayor Duggan has expressed a desire for more local control of Detroit schools, or, as Gov. Snyder put it: “The mayor sees the value in this, but there is a difference in governance: The mayor’s office still has issues they want to talk about, and I feel it’s important to get this dialogue going. We’ve taken a lot of input from the mayor. We have a supportive, positive relationship. No, we don’t agree on every issue.” Earlier this month, Mayor Duggan reiterated that he is advocating for local control, including an elected school board for Detroit to run its 100 public schools. He further proposed that an election be held next spring. Mayor Duggan has said the city needs an education commission with membership that he appoints, as recommended by the education coalition. The commission, he said, would level the playing field between public schools and charters and help to set standards for where they are needed and can locate.
  • Oversight. Gov. Snyder’s announcement follows news of an FBI corruption investigation involving DPS and the Governor’s K-12 reform district, the Education Achievement Authority, leading the Gov. to note: “I think it’s fair to say it complicates it.” Under his revised proposal, a new seven-member school board would be created to govern the new Detroit school district. The governor would appoint four board members, and Mayor Mike Duggan would appoint three board members. Mayor Duggan has resisted appointing school board members and has called for the return of an elected board. Detroit’s elected school board has been without policy decision-making powers for six years, during which time the district has been under the control of four state-appointed emergency managers. Gov. Snyder indicated he was open to changes in the legislative process. “Let’s get the legislative process going and let’s work through that…Not everyone is going to like every piece of this.” Members of the House Detroit Democratic caucus said they were ready to work with Gov. Snyder on a reform plan — as long as it includes local control of schools. “The state has controlled DPS for many years, and it has been a failure,” said Rep. Brian Banks, caucus chairman. “We have to find a better way, and we believe that way lies through local control. We look forward to working with all stakeholders to address all of the issues surrounding DPS.”
  • Partners. Gov. Snyder took care not to alienate the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, which offered a reform plan in late March. One of the major differences between the coalition’s plan and the Governor’s is his recommendation for a voluntary enrollment system, as opposed to the mandatory system the coalition recommended. “We looked at the best practices around the country and they were all voluntary, and we felt that was the best way to go for parents, to give them more choice…We encourage charters to join the voluntary system in terms of making their school decisions.” Gov. Snyder also said the coalition presented far more recommendations than he used. “It’s not that we don’t agree,” he said. “It’s just that they (many of the recommendations from the coalition) didn’t appear to be prudent for state legislation.”
  • The forthcoming bills are expected to include:

• The Detroit Public Schools would be phased out completely once DPS pays down roughly $515 million in outstanding operating debt. It also collects a $70 million millage from city taxpayers. The city’s Financial Review Commission would oversee the old district while the debt is repaid.
• An additional $200 million would go to the new Detroit Community School District in startup funding and to cover anticipated operating losses due to potential declining enrollment. The new district also would be responsible for about $1.5 billion in pension obligations.
• A new seven-member board would be created to govern the Detroit Community School District. Its members initially would be appointed by Snyder and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, with elections phased in beginning in 2017. The board makeup would be majority-elected by 2019 and fully elected by 2021.
• A new Detroit Education Commission would be created, with oversight of the new Detroit school district, the Education Achievement Authority and charter public schools. Its members would be appointed by Snyder and Duggan and would be charged with hiring a chief education officer. The chief education officer would be in charge of academics, including having authority to close low-performing schools.
• A standard enrollment system would be introduced, with common forms and enrollment periods for all participating schools to help parents review options for their children. The common enrollment would be voluntary for schools, although all schools would be required to report academic and other performance standards for transparency.

Are There Alternates to Municipal Bankruptcy? In the absence of access to municipal bankruptcy because of Congressional reluctance, the U.S. Treasury, in discussions with Puerto Rico, has proposed consideration of the creation of a new municipal bond security—one which would be senior to Puerto Rico’s general obligation or GO bonds—and which could act as an exchange vehicle in a sweeping debt restructuring. Reportedly, the proposal would shift collection of all or some of Puerto Rico’s income, sales and use, and other tax revenues to the Internal Revenue Service or the Bureau of Fiscal Service in the U.S. Treasury: such tax receipts would pass through a quasi-lockbox before such revenues would then be effectively returned to the U.S. commonwealth—effectively creating a new governmental entity to securitize these new lockbox revenues. Because the potential governing and taxing structure would, effectively, bypass the existing constitutional revenue structure for the island and its constitution, the proposal appears to be a means under which Puerto Rico’s many, many municipal bondholders would be incentivized to exchange their newly-subordinated Puerto Rico municipal bonds at a discount for certificates of the new U.S. quasi-municipal security. The plan—in part based on a recognition that Congress appears almost certain not to act—nevertheless confronts signal hurdles and skepticism—or as our admired friends at Municipal Market Analytics put it: “[O]n its own, this debt strategy has little chance of success: without a meaningful, definitive, and well-supported program to restructure Puerto Rico’s revenue mix and operational spending, bondholders cannot judge the long-term effectiveness of any proposed debt haircut or the value in any exchange security, regardless of how structurally-insulated from PR’s economy and finances it appears to be….” Adding: “[T]here are massive execution risks in this plan, not the least of which is a (likely) need for Congressional approval. The US Treasury has been convincing that, beyond operational assistance, this plan intends no injection of Federal cash to PR and no other characteristics of a bailout. Yet, seeing as how Republicans oppose the extension of chapter 9 to Puerto Rico on the grounds that it would somehow be a bailout implies an extremely low hurdle for debt holders to successfully lobby their opposition to this plan.” In addition, of course, is the tricky issue of federalism: can you imagine any governor or state legislature which would willingly relinquish control of its income, sales and use, or other taxes to the federal government? MMA slyly adds that even were the Puerto Rican legislature to buy into such a proposal, there would be comparable doubt as to whether current Puerto Rico municipal bondholders scattered across the continental U.S. would be standing in long lines to exchange their current general obligation bonds for an untested new model. Moreover, as MMA masterfully writes:

“Finally, the island’s liquidity issues are on a much tighter schedule than a plan of this magnitude could hope to be. With the real possibility of a PR government shutdown and additional bond defaults before year end, this plan, if it happens at all, would most likely be a means for PR to cure, and not avoid, payment defaults. This is an important distinction, because ‘cure’ strategies have, by definition, a higher standard for long-term benefit, further complicating the plan’s implementation prospects. While this plan will help PR collect the taxes it is supposed to collect, any increase in taxes—even on “underground” economic activity—effectively relocates capital from PR citizens to the government, worsening the local economy and out-migration trends. So while the exchange security may get a first crack at all revenues—just as PR’s GO security is purported to do—it is unreasonable to expect that those revenues will move anywhere but downward over time, creating incremental pressure on now less-flexible PR finances. Any post-default implementation of this plan would need to consider these secondary effects and ensure that the new financing will not cripple PR in the future.”

The Desperate Price of Fiscal Unaccountability

October 14, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Steepening Road to Municipal Recovery

October 9, 2015

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

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

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

October 1, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

September 30, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

eBlog

September 21, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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