By Martin Lavelle
On November 7–8, 2013, the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, Detroit Branch and the Citizens Research Council of Michigan hosted a two-day symposium on municipal bankruptcy, with the aim of uncovering what could be learned from cities that have experienced and are currently experiencing fiscal struggles. Local experts were given the chance to comment on presentations by national experts regarding Detroit’s July bankruptcy filing. This blog summarizes key information from the conference.
The first day’s discussion centered on the current state of local governments that have already gone through financial difficulties and lessons that could be learned from past crises.
Michael Pagano, College of Urban Planning & Public Administration, University of Illinois–Chicago, argued that Detroit’s case is unique and isn’t necessarily the beginning of a wave of municipal bankruptcies. Cities are still required to balance their budgets annually. Part of the budget pressure Detroit currently faces stems from cuts in state revenue sharing, which began in 2000. Further pressure on Detroit’s finances came from drops in property values which, combined with drops in sales and income tax revenues, put major constraints on Detroit’s budget.
According to CLOSUP’s September survey of municipal governments, fewer jurisdictions are reporting declines in state aid, though almost half still report decreases in state revenue sharing, according to Debra Horner, CLOSUP, University of Michigan. With property tax revenue growth flat, local governments are reducing their spending through shifting more health care costs to employees and increasing intergovernmental cooperation. Between 25% and 50% of Southeast Michigan’s local jurisdictions are less able to meet their fiscal needs, fewer than Saginaw (more than 50%), but more than Western Michigan (fewer than 25%). Fewer than half of Michigan’s local jurisdictions feel they can’t meet future needs within their current spending structure, with fewer reporting they can improve their service delivery and that significant structural reform to public finance is needed.
Robert Inman, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, argued that Detroit has to set up the right set of institutions and incentives that will create the appropriate fiscal culture. Inman said fiscal crises result from weak demographics, a weak economy, and weak public policies. Wage and benefit increases without compensating marginal productivity increases is a “recipe for disaster,” said Inman, something Detroit pensioners face under Chapter 9 bankruptcy. Detroit’s decaying infrastructure (physical and human) equates to borrowing money indirectly while contributing to losses in property values. Detroit and other fiscally troubled cities should have the option to privatize when necessary, Inman said, and to create neighborhood and business improvement districts but not tax businesses to cross-subsidize residential services.
Municipalities should devote more time to place-making, according to Anthony Minghine, Michigan Municipal League. When municipalities diminish their service level in order to pay workers’ pensions, it leads to lower property tax revenues, which further erode service delivery. Minghine said the municipal government financial model is broken, except in high-income areas. He added that Michigan’s emergency manager law is a law of destruction, not construction. Once a municipal government starts to experience financial difficulties, it becomes hard to end that cycle of financial dysfunction.
Frank Shafroth, George Mason University, said state governments can and should play an important role in preventing municipal bankruptcies. Prevention should come through preemptive responses to deteriorating financial conditions, not through reactions to already dire financial situations. In the case of Central Falls, Rhode Island, it has been more expensive for the state after the bankruptcy filing because state law did not require Central Falls to accept state assistance. Even though Rhode Island volunteered help by offering the expertise of former city managers for no charge, it wasn’t enough to prevent Central Falls’ bankruptcy. Shafroth expressed concern that Michigan’s current intervention system with local governments will not begin soon enough.
Joyce Parker, The Municipal Group, brought Ecorse, MI, successfully out of her emergency management through place-setting and engaging the community in the place-setting process. Parker was able to get city residents to overcome the anger and distrust that sometimes accompanies the appointment of an emergency manager and contribute to the process of setting Ecorse on a sustainable financial course. While serving as Ecorse’s emergency manager, Parker did have to decrease staffing levels, but was able to accomplish some cost-cutting by sharing resources with other local governments.
The second day’s discussion turned to the impact a municipal financial crisis can have on investors and how state governments might intervene in local governmental finances.
Lisa Washburn, Municipal Market Advisors, reported that Detroit’s financial troubles did not surprise investors because the city had been plagued by out-migration, high poverty, significant tax burdens, structural budget deficits, and political corruption, thereby prompting state assistance. However, Michigan’s unwillingness to provide direct monetary assistance surprised the investor community, because the state had a long history of credit oversight and of prioritizing debt repayment. Investors questioned how the state could execute such a poor communication strategy and get involved too late in Detroit, seemingly encouraging Detroit to go bankrupt and default. After Detroit’s bankruptcy filing, some Michigan municipalities’ debt issuances were forced to accept higher yields and even higher risk spreads, yet Washburn argued that Detroit’s bankruptcy does not pose systemic risk to the municipal bond market. She noted it may be harder for Detroit to reenter the municipal bond market because of its debtor-in-possession financing and the time it may take the city to emerge from bankruptcy.
From a neighborhood investor’s perspective, Bill Pulte, Pulte Homes, who has done extensive work in removing blight from Detroit’s Brightmoor neighborhood, said Detroit must be cleaned up before any turnaround plan can work. Pulte reported that no one can make a profit currently in Detroit’s real estate market, in part because of Detroit’s 100,000 vacant structures and its 100,000 vacant parcels. In the past, federal funds for demolition went to many contractors, working in different parts of Detroit. Now, Detroit will receive $52 million from the state and $150 million to accelerate blight demolition in an effort that will be more coordinated.
When it comes to state intervention in municipal finances, Stephen Fehr, Pew Center for the States, indicated that 19 states can intervene in distressed localities, but only a handful of these states are really active. States should oversee local governments in order to ensure public safety, avoid negative stigma, and block the distress from spreading to neighboring towns, Fehr said. He noted that Detroit is similar to Camden, NJ, in that both cities have been the focus of various state and federal efforts, as well as service sharing. New Jersey’s state government, under Governor Chris Christie, approves local budgets and debt payments.
North Carolina arguably has the most effective intervention program, which resulted from bankruptcy filings by multiple local governments in the early 1940s. An outside board reviews data sent in periodically by local governments. A state commission then reports on the status of local governments. The board recommends that local governments maintain an 8% fund balance. If the fund balance falls short of that target, warning letters go out to those governments.
Eric Lupher, Citizens Research Council of Michigan, pointed out that since the 1960s, Michigan has had legislation that allows for state intervention into local government finances, but not state monitoring. Public Act 436, passed into law by Michigan’s State Legislature late in 2012, allows the state to take some initiative when intervening into local government financial dealings. Lupher asked whether the scoring of local governments’ fiscal conditions should be taken over by an outside firm, like Munetrix. He said state governments should want to prevent local government finances from worsening because of the economic impacts financial struggles have on cities and the state. One way to protect against financial emergencies could be for the state to teach local governments best budgetary practices. In the case of Detroit, Lupher argued that the state should uphold its constitutional pledge and protect pensions through the creation of a Michigan Benefit Guaranty Corporation. 
Arguably, the biggest takeaway from the conference was that states should be more involved with local government finances so financial emergencies can be avoided. Intervening too late in a municipal government’s financial emergency may be more costly for state government post-crisis. Also, state governments should want to be informed about the condition of municipal governments’ finances, particularly in the larger population areas that help drive economic growth. It is very difficult for Michigan to achieve strong state-wide economic growth if its largest city, Detroit, is experiencing significant financial distress.
 A Michigan Benefit Guaranty Corporation would be similar to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC), which protects more than 40 million American workers in more than 26,000 private-sector defined benefit pension plans. The PBGC is headed by a director who is appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate (pbgc.gov).