Muni Credit News November 29, 2016

Joseph Krist

Municipal Credit Consultant

THE HEADLINES…

PUERTO RICO

CHRISTIE BACKTRACKS

NASSAU COUNTY FACES NIFA INTERVENTION

ALABAMA SECURITIZES BP SETTLEMENT

INCOME BASED TRANSIT FARES

DALLAS PENSIONS

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PR

The process of reforming and restructuring Puerto Rico’s finances drags on. Transition hearings between the administration of Gov. Alejandro García Padilla and the incoming government of Ricardo Rosselló Nevares began Monday with testimony by the president of the Planning Board, who detailed the challenges the economy of Puerto Rico faces. “The future risks are the price of oil, the perspective of the American economy, the deterioration of the labor market, the continuing population decline, the revenue collection ability we have, the proportion of cash in retirement systems, the loss of liquidity, and the other factor is the interest rate, which quite possibly the Federal Reserve will make a decision on an interest increase Dec. 14,” Planning Board President Luis García Pellatti said.

In testimony before the Transition Committee, the Planning Board president also mentioned that there are currently 137,000 people without jobs, representing a 12% unemployment rate. That number represents people who are currently looking for work. The rate of population decline is about 9%, and according to García Pelatti emigration in Puerto Rico already exceeds the rate of the 1950s, when some 230,000 people left the island.

“The capital improvement program at PREPA [Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority] is of $2 billion and the PRASA’s [Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority] program is $400 million. The actions taken in the economy take 18 months to be reflected. If PREPA starts its capital improvement program, we will see it in 18 months.” Currently, the Planning Board head said, there are 899,000 jobs, and 10,000 jobs have been lost since last year. In 2017, an additional 3,400 jobs are projected to be lost.

Regarding federal funds, García Pelatti indicated that the projection is these remain the same. In 2015, Puerto Rico received $16.314 billion in federal funds and $16.638 billion in 2016. Personal consumption expenditures began to fall in 2014, representing $61.753 billion. In 2015 consumer spending fell to $ 61.911 billion, and the projection is it will fall to $ 61.866 billion in 2016, García Pelatti said.

CHRISTIE REINSTATES TAX AGREEMENT WITH PA.

In an about-face, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie announced that the income tax reciprocity agreement he had planned to suspend effective January 1 will be retained after finding $200 million in savings from legislation he signed into law Monday designed to help curb public employee healthcare costs. The governor said in September that the state needed to revoke the pact and tax Pennsylvania residents who work in New Jersey because of a $250 million budget shortfall caused by Democratic lawmakers failing to make necessary public employee healthcare insurance cuts. Ending the tax arrangement first implemented in 1977, was estimated to bring $180 million in new revenue to New Jersey while Pennsylvania stood to lose $5 million a year.

Pennsylvania has a flat income tax rate of 3.07% compared with New Jersey’s rates that range from 5.52% to 8.95% for those earning more than $40,000. Pennsylvania residents working in New Jersey have been able to pay the lower income rate from their home state under the tax agreement.

In September, S&P Global Ratings noted that ending tax reciprocity could potentially encourage employers to move from New Jersey to parts of Pennsylvania that have lower tax rates. This would have resulted in a potential minor economic downside for New Jersey and upside for Pennsylvania, according to S&P. New Jersey has incurred 10 credit downgrades since Christie took office in 2010 due mainly to structurally unbalanced budgets and rising unfunded pension liabilities. S&P downgraded New Jersey bonds on Nov. 14.

Christie’s decision also impacts Philadelphia, which faced an estimated $50 million annual loss in revenue had the tax pact ended, according to one estimate. “We’re pleased to see this longstanding agreement will be maintained,” said a Philadelphia City spokesman.

NASSAU COUNTY FACES NIFA CONTROL

Nassau County legislators met with 2017’s county budget still partially unfunded. County Executive Edward Magana sent legislators a $2.98 billion budget that included $66 million from new $105 administrative fees on all parking and traffic tickets, but Presiding Officer Norma Gonzales refused on Oct. 31 to approve the new fees. Last week, she announced that majority legislators would allow only about $30 million of those fees to be implemented in a current vote, eliminating the fee on parking tickets and cutting it to $55 on traffic tickets.

That plan will replace the needed funds with money from businesses which, under an amnesty deal, would pay only partial fines for not reporting their income and expenses as required by law — a statue that has been challenged in court. Last week, NIFA told legislators in a letter that a budget that relies on this $36 million from the Income and Expense Law would be rejected, sent back for speedy modification, and if acceptable changes aren’t made, will see NIFA cut that $36 million from the spending plan. The money from the $105 fee it replaced can’t be counted on either, because it can be legally challenged on at least two counts:

Administrative fees, by law, are supposed to reflect administrative costs. The $105 charges are clearly meant to fill a revenue hole, not pay for the handling of the tickets themselves. Magana says the money raised will pay for the hiring of almost 250 police officers and civilian employees. And therein lies another legal problem: Using the fee revenue, which should go to the county’s general fund, to pay for new police disenfranchises county residents who live in villages with their own forces.

Nassau’s consistent structural deficit, which generally hovers around $100 million annually, could be eliminated. One newspaper estimates that spending cuts of 1.7 percent annually for two years would do the trick, or spending cuts of 1 percent and property tax increases of 2 percent annually for two years.

As a state control board, NIFA has the power to force the county into a balanced budget. That might not be a bad idea as the legislature is characterized by a notorious lack of backbone in dealing with budgetary matters and County Executive Magana is likely distracted by preparations for his defense against pending corruption charges.

ALABAMA SECURITIZATION

The proposed securitization financing to be paid from the State of Alabama’s share of BP Deepwater Horizon settlement monies piqued our curiosity. We are less concerned with the structural issues of the credit securing the proposed issue. We are more concerned with how the proceeds of the issue would applied. Would they be used for short-term budget relief? Would they be applied to capital needs in lieu of other sources of debt financing? Would they be geographically targeted to correspond more to the areas of the State impacted by the spill? The answers to these questions would reflect either positively or negatively on the State’s credit and financial practices.

We are glad to see that the State’s plan answers these questions in the manner that we see as being most favorable to the State. the fact that the primary use is for transportation capital projects in the southwest of the State is positive. The use of some proceeds to support some operating expenses is at least in departments which would have been related to the spill. The geographical targeting of the capital uses speaks for itself.
So kudos to the State for a wise use of the “windfall” in an era when such common sense use of such funding is fairly uncommon. We don’t see enough of that in these challenging times.

One  another aspect of the deal we see is the use of this money as supporting the trend we saw on election day of support for transportation spending on the sub-federal level during a time of pressure and uncertainty from federal sources.

INCOME BASED TRANSIT FARES

The MTA in New York is expected to propose a 4 percent increase on fares and tolls across the agency’s network of subways, buses, tunnels and bridges. The new base fare, which may rise to $3 from $2.75, is expected to take effect in March as part of regularly scheduled increases every two years. As part of the debate, a number of politicians and interest groups is proposing funding in the NYC Fiscal Year 2018 Executive Budget to cover the cost of offering half-price Metro Cards to New Yorkers between the ages of 18 and 64 living in households at or below the federal poverty level, about $24,000 for a family of four.  According to a 2016 report by activist groups CSS and The Transit Affordability Crisis, as many as 800,000 New Yorkers would be eligible for reduced fares under this proposal.

Preliminary estimates from The Transit Affordability Crisis find that under this half- fare proposal, the City would have to make up about $200 million in lost fare revenue annually to the MTA. Unfortunately, advocates cannot produce  consistent estimates of the expected revenue loss. Another estimate from The Community Service Society of New York and Riders Alliance found If frequent riders applied for discounted fare cards at rates similar to those at which they seek public benefits like food stamps, about 360,000 people might participate at a cost to the authority of about $194 million a year in lost revenue.

One of those estimates is wrong. We suspect that the revenue loss is higher. What is not in doubt is that the foregone revenue in the lower estimate amounted to 3.3% of 2015 fare box revenues from buses. Not an insignificant amount but not fatal to the credit either. Using the larger of the two possible estimates provided by advocates, the revenue loss could be double that which would more significant. Another way of looking at the proposal is that the lower estimated revenue loss is nearly equal to all of the 2015 MTA bus revenue collected in 2015. It is hard to believe that free bus service in New York City would become a reality.

Cities like San Francisco and Seattle have already adopted low-income reduced fare programs. But fare box revenues comprise a much lower share of operating revenues in those cities and those systems do not have debt outstanding which is secured by pledges of those revenues. From a strictly credit point of view, adoption of the proposal without subsidy from government would be credit negative for MTA debt and would be credit negative for the City if it chose to subsidize the program. The City already subsidizes bus service to the tune of $439 million.

DALLAS PENSION PROBLEMS COMING TO A HEAD

There will be a court hearing on December 1 on a request from five police and firefighters challenging proposed changes in benefits. The changes were proposed after a series of bad investments, primarily in real estate, produced a series of poor investment returns. At an August board meeting, trustees discussed reducing benefits and in September they considered restricting withdrawals from the Deferred Retirement Option Program, where monthly pension checks accumulate interest if police and firefighters chose to work past retirement age.

Concerned, police and firefighters began retiring and pulling money from their DROP accounts. A September letter warned that “our long-term solvency will become much more challenging” if the exit continues. But trustees still heard more than 80 requests to retire in October, compared with a monthly average of 14. Even if benefits are reduced, stabilizing the fund would require $1.1 billion from the city, according to pension officials. The city is understandably reluctant about providing assistance because of the pension’s past investment choices.

It is clear that the blame for the crisis can be spread around and that a somewhat holistic approach to resolving the situation. We see the comments about the potential for bankruptcy by the City as being for political purposes in an effort to lead to state legislative support for changes in pension law. Clearly, this will not be an easy fix and there will be much contention along the way. A downgrade for the City will likely occur as a part of the resolution of this situation.

Disclaimer:  The opinions and statements expressed in this column are solely those of the author, who is solely responsible for the accuracy and completeness of this column.  The opinions and statements expressed on this website are for informational purposes only, and are not intended to provide investment advice or guidance in any way and do not represent a solicitation to buy, sell or hold any of the securities mentioned.  Opinions and statements expressed reflect only the view or judgment of the author(s) at the time of publication, and are subject to change without notice.  Information has been derived from sources deemed to be reliable, but the reliability of which is not guaranteed.  Readers are encouraged to obtain official statements and other disclosure documents on their own and/or to consult with their own investment professional and advisors prior to making any investment decisions.

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