Tag Archives: San Bernardino

Eight years after the financial crisis: lessons from the most fiscally distressed cities

You’d think that eight years after the financial crisis, cities would have recovered. Instead, declining tax revenues following the economic downturn paired with growing liabilities have slowed recovery. Some cities exacerbated their situations with poor policy choices. Much could be learned by studying how city officials manage their finances in response to fiscal crises.

Detroit made history in 2013 when it became the largest city to declare bankruptcy after decades of financial struggle. Other cities like Stockton and San Bernardino in California had their own financial battles that also resulted in bankruptcy. Their policy decisions reflect the most extreme responses to fiscal crises.

You could probably count on both hands how many cities file for bankruptcy each year, but this is not an extremely telling statistic as cities often take many other steps to alleviate budget problems and view bankruptcy as a last resort. When times get tough, city officials often reduce payments into their pension systems, raise taxes – or when that doesn’t seem adequate – find themselves cutting services or laying off public workers.

It turns out that many municipalities weathered the 2008 recession without needing to take such extreme actions. Studying how these cities managed to recover more quickly than cities like Stockton provides interesting insight on what courses of action can help city officials better respond to fiscal distress.

A new Mercatus study examines the types of actions that public officials have taken under fiscal distress and then concludes with recommendations that could help future crises from occurring. Their empirical model finds that increased reserves, lower debt, and better tax structures all significantly improve a city’s fiscal health.

The authors, researchers Evgenia Gorina and Craig Maher, define fiscal distress as:

“the condition of local finances that does not permit the government to provide public services and meet its own operating needs to the extent to which these have been provided and met previously.”

In order to determine whether a city or county government is under fiscal distress, the authors study the actual actions taken by city officials between 2007 and 2012. Their approach is unique because it stands in contrast with previous literature that primarily looks to poorly performing financial indicators to measure fiscal distress. An example of such an indicator would be how much cash a government has on hand relative to its liabilities.

Although financial indicators can tell someone a lot about the fiscal condition of their locality, they are only a snapshot of financial resources on hand and don’t provide information on how previous policy choices got them to their current state. A robust analysis of a city’s financial health would require a deeper look. Looking at policy decisions as well as financial indicators can paint a more complete picture of just how financial resources are being managed.

The figure here displays the types of actions, or “fiscal distress episodes”, that the authors of the study found were the most common among cities in California, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. As expected, you’ll see that bankruptcy occurs much less frequently than other courses of action. The top three most common attempts to meet fundamental operating needs and service requirements during times of fiscal distress include (1) large across-the-board budget cuts or cuts in services, (2) blanket reduction in employee salaries, and (3) unusual tax rate or fee increases.

fiscal-distress-episodes

Another thing that becomes clear from this figure is that public workers and taxpayers appear to be adversely affected by the most common fiscal episodes. Cuts in services, reductions in employee salaries, large tax increases, and layoffs all place much of the distress on these groups. By contrast, actions like fund transfers, deferring capital projects, or late budget enactment don’t directly affect public workers or taxpayers (at least in the short term).

I decided to break down how episodes affected public workers and taxpayers for each state examined in the sample. 91% of California’s municipal fiscal distress episodes directly affected public employees or the provision of public services, while the remaining 9% indirectly affected them. Michigan and Pennsylvania followed with 85% and 66% of episodes, respectively, directly affecting public workers or taxpayers through cuts in services, tax increases, or layoffs.

Many of these actions surely happen in tandem with each other in more distressed cities, but it seems that more often than not, the burden falls heavily on public workers and taxpayers.

The city officials who had to make these hard decisions obviously did so under financially and politically intense circumstances; what many, including researchers like Gorina and Maher, consider to be a fiscal crisis. In fact, 32 percent of the communities across the three states in their sample experienced fiscal distress which, on its own, sheds light on the magnitude of the 2007-2009 recession. A large motivator of Gorina and Maher’s research is to understand what characteristics of the cities who more quickly rebounded from the Great Recession allowed them to prevent hitting fiscal crisis stage in the first place.

They do so by testing the effect of a city’s pre-existing fiscal condition on their likelihood to undergo fiscal distress. After controlling for things like government type, size, and local economic factors, they found that cities that had larger reserves and lower debt tended to weather the recession better relative to other cities. More specifically, declining general revenue balance as a percent of general expenditures and increases in debt as a share of total revenue both increase the odds of fiscal distress for a city.

Additionally, the authors found that cities with a greater reliance on property taxes managed to weather the recession better than governments reliant on other revenue sources. This suggests that revenue structure, not just the amount of revenue raised, is an important determinant of fiscal health.

No city wants to end up like Detroit or Scranton. Policymakers in these cities were forced to make hard choices that were politically unpopular; often harming public employees and taxpayers. Officials can look to Gorina and Maher’s research to understand how they can prevent ending up in such dire situations.

When approaching municipal finances, each city’s unique situation should of course be taken into consideration. This requires looking at each city’s economic history and financial practices, similar to what my colleagues have done for Scranton. Combining each city’s financial context with principles of sound financial management can surely help more cities find and maintain a healthy fiscal path.

Varying Priorities in Municipal Bankruptcy

On Monday Reuters reported that a federal judge has found Stockton, CA to be eligible for bankruptcy protection. This decision came despite protests from Wall Street arguing that the city had options available that would have allowed it to pay its creditors in full, such as raising taxes or cutting benefits for city employees:

Creditors have claimed a lack of good faith by Stockton in its decision to fully pay its obligation to the $254 billion Calpers system but impose losses on bondholders and bond insurers.

The expected move by the California city of 300,000 – along with Jefferson County in Alabama and San Bernardino in California – breaks with a long-standing tradition to fully repay bondholders the principal in most major municipal bankruptcies.

While both the judge and city manager Bob Deis have harshly criticized bondholders who refused to negotiate with the city before bankruptcy proceedings began, other cities have taken a very different approach to their creditors in the bankruptcy process. In 2011, the Rhode Island policymakers adopted a law that puts municipal creditors at the head of the line in municipal bankruptcy proceedings. In the state’s  Central Falls bankruptcy, the requirement to pay bondholders 100 cents on the dollar has meant that the city’s pensioners have taken steep benefit cuts, in some cases losing nearly half of their defined benefit pensions.

After Rhode Island enacted this law, the Wall Street Journal explained:

Despite the financial failure, Central Falls suddenly is attractive to some investors because the law makes them more confident about getting paid.

“If we can find someone selling, we will be a buyer” of Central Falls bonds, says Matt Dalton, chief executive of Belle Haven Investments, a White Plains, N.Y., firm with $800 million in municipal-bond investments under management.

The difference in legal climates for bondholders in Rhode Island and California unsurprisingly fosters different attitudes from creditors.  Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan explains the dangers of cutting off a city’s access to credit by failing to pay bondholders in full:

“I think the unions ought to be scared stiff. This could be a lot worse than just the pensions. What about government bonds? If government bonds can also be restructured, who will buy them?

“The city and the state all issue tax anticipation bonds to meet their payrolls, but if those can be restructured, no one will buy them. Think about what that means for libraries, parks, street paving, police. It will all be on the line.

While cities on both coasts are facing insolvency in their efforts to meet their obligations to their employees and their creditors, they vary in their approaches as to who is first in line for scarce tax dollars.

Is the mortgage crisis to blame for San Bernardino’s bankruptcy?

The LA Times contains a new kind of argument on why cities like Stockton and San Bernardino are in bankruptcy. To date, politicians, analysts and journalists have drawn a direct line from rising employee costs and declining revenues to municipal fiscal stress. Harold Meyerson takes another path to reach his own destination – to burnish the image of unions and  politicians. His bankruptcy diagnosis gets lost along the way.

He blames the banks. These cities went bankrupt because, “banks were peddling subprime mortgages to poorly-paid workers.” While the banks are certainly involved in the economic and fiscal train wreck he is upfront that the goal is to weave a counter-narrative, challenging the “right and center right” story of fiscal irresponsibility and overpaid public employees.

The problem with narratives (on either the right or the left) is when they cobble together related events and actors without a theoretical framework and empirical evidence. Mr. Meyerson is holding several of the puzzle pieces but then forces them together without regard to how they fit.

Some puzzle pieces he correctly identifies: a housing bubble, the role of banks, the economic fortunes of the Inland Empire, and the fiscal effects of California’s Proposition 13. What he airbrushes or ignores are the roles of Fed Policy, government lending, regulatory and land-use interventions, the short-term incentives of politicians, the hand of special interests, unions, and erroneous accounting assumptions that generated the perfect storm for a fiscal fallout in 2008.

Stockton’s troubles are plain for all to see. Steven Malanga discusses them here. The municipality’s spending spree can be traced to an overheated housing market which drove Bay Area homebuyers into Stockton in search of cheaper properties. That lead to a 20 percent population growth and a surge in property tax revenues fueling Stockton’s appetite for redevelopment. In 2003 the city borrowed for a waterfront revitalization and a 5000-seat sports arena. They bonded for pension enhancements. In total the city issued $700 million in debt.

Part of the pension deal allowed workers to retire at 50 with 90 percent of their final pay plus COLAs. To pay for this, Stockton invested some bond proceeds into CALpers on the bet it would earn more than the interest payments on that debt. They lost that bet. The housing boom – itself the creation of decades of government interventions – created the mirage of ever-increasing revenues that encouraged politicians to play fast and loose with bonds and future promises to workers.

The next claim is that defined benefit plans have been “demonized” also misses the mark. Defined benefit plans – or annuities – have been destroyed by those who champion them most loudly. Faulty government actuarial assumptions made them appear cheap to operate. That encourage politicians to offer workers (in union negotiations) increasingly generous retirement terms all while underfunding those benefits and taking risks with plan assets. This is accounting chicanery, and sadly, it was not (and still isn’t fully) recognized as such. The blame there can be pinned on the esoteric but well-documented trouble with defined benefit pension accounting. This case has been made in great technical detail by economists and practitioners.

The right salary for a public worker can really only be determined with reference to a private sector counterpart. It isn’t backed into based on area housing prices. Biggs and Richwine find public teacher salaries are on par with a private sector counterpart (in terms of SAT scores and skills). But, salary is only one component of total compensation for public sector workers. Compensation also includes (undervalued and underfunded) pension benefits and (largely unfunded) health benefits. Public sector compensation is a big and growing part of many municipal budgets. What can be said is that the cost of San Bernardino’s police and firefighters represent three-quarters of the city’s expenditures and revenues are flat.

Again, Meyerson is holding one of the right puzzle pieces: the revenue bust that followed the housing bubble. But he fails to note that it was the government-induced housing bubble and subsequent revenue boom that tempted public officials to overextend themselves. This house of cards was supported by flawed accounting and incentivized by short-term gains. This is why to make those pieces fit one needs a theory and empirics otherwise the diagnosis of San Bernardino’s and Stockton’s bankruptcy is cast aside in service of the meme. It is “politics with romance.”

What caused these two cities to tank? A host of economic and fiscal factors and scores of regulatory interventions over many decades. Some of that can be found in the accounts and CAFRs. They are no fun to comb over but they reveal choices, bargains, and tradeoffs under constraints and contain the record of the evasions and faulty assumptions of “public choosers.”