Part II - The Eventual Cost of DPS Liabilities to Michigan Taxpayers and Detroit Schoolchildren
DPS has two types of formal debt: operating and capital. Operating debt is a conversion of present and past annual operating deficits into ‘long-term notes’ sold to the financial markets, as well as more immediate debts owed to the State of Michigan directly. DPS capital debt exists only in the form of bonds which were sold to financial markets to purchase and rehabilitate facilities. DPS’ formal bonds are identified by Series, which consists of the year issued and a letter suffix when different purpose bonds are issued in a single year. The financial markets apply a further identifier, CUSIP, which is a unique identifier of municipal bonds by series and their intended dates of redemption. All of the DPS debt sold to the financial markets has been enrolled in Public Act 92 of 2005, a program designed to reduce interest rates to local school districts in accordance with the 1963 Michigan Constitution’s Article IX, Section 16. Most DPS debt is effectively secured by a general obligation to pay, which requires Detroit taxpayers to increase taxes and reduce spending should financial difficulties repaying arise.
DPS pays off its capital debt in annual installments of both interest and principal, before it pays off (or adds to) its operating debt. Bond interest and principal payments are required by bond terms which – if ignored – would result in immediate default and bankruptcy. The exact contract terms of DPS debt sold to the financial markets are laid out in official statements which detail all the formal legal and financial features of the bonds. The official statement is essentially a contract between DPS and its bond purchasers.
DPS’ operating debt payments are somewhat more flexible than capital debt payments because only a portion of operating debt has been converted into formal bonds covered by statements; much of it is separately owed to the Michigan School Loan Revolving Fund. The SSLRF can best be thought of as a State sponsored credit card. School districts tap into it when they are short of cash, and pay off their balance when they are flush. Operating debt is only converted into formal bonds when Michigan school districts exceed their limits at the SSLRF. Those limits are not exact, and generally come into play when DPS goes through one of its periodic financial spasms.
The entire world now knows what crass bureaucratic stupidity, feeble political direction, and witless press coverage did to Flint. We have demonstrated that Flint’s politicians and financial managers made terrible decisions in an effort to replace plunging tax revenue, which had reached statutory and constitutional rate limitations.
The foremost source of revenue expanded was Flint’s water & sewerage charges. Annual free cash flow from water & sewerage charges was increased from nil to $ 28.7 million (bottoms of page 3-13) over the decade from 2004 [FY2005 CAFR, large file] to 2014 [FY2015 CAFR, large file]. The big jump in free cash flow from water & sewerage charges occurred in 2014 as a consequence of Flint River sourcing. Flint only had to pay the DW&SD pirates for water up to April 25th in 2014. Annual free cash flow from water & sewerage charges in 2013 [FY 2014 CAFR, large file] was only $ 9.4 million when they paid DW&SD all year. Why Flint resourced to the Flint River in one number: $ 19.3 million more in cash flow. And most of this $ 19.3 million is now gone with the return to DW&SD water. We will know how much gone later this year.
That $ 28.7 million in free cash flow during 2014 was a 77% markup on actual Flint water & sewerage costs. Only $ 7 million of it was used for infrastructure, mostly to prepare for the now abandoned Flint River sourcing. Only $ 2 million of it was used to pay off water & sewerage debt. The remaining $ 18.5 million was used by other Flint city departments and applied to other Flint obligations. That $ 18.5 million dollars became 22% of all Flint City revenues. Greater than any other source of revenue, greater than income tax revenue, greater than property tax revenue, greater than State revenue sharing, greater than Federal revenue sharing. That $ 28.7 million dollars was the only reason Flint was able to exit emergency management. That and a $ 65.3 million theft from restatement of Flint’s water and sewerage enterprise fund net positions, from their 2014 CAFR to their 2015 CAFR (compare ending 2014 to beginning 2015 net positions on the bottom of pages 3-13).
Let’s consider a counterfactual. Suppose that Michigan’s bureaucrats and political leaders were actually competent and, under the unrelenting scrutiny of a watchful press, arranged for proper chemistry controls of Flint River sourced water. No Flint residents were exposed to lead, no one died from legionella pneumophila, and Flint residents sang the praises of their new water. Its tough to ignore recent history, but do so for a moment so we can explore a very important question:
Would the financial reorganization of Flint under its popularly elected politicians and emergency managers have worked?
The Flint emergency managers had only one common thread in their backgrounds, long records of administration in government and the nonprofit sectors. No productive experience. Experts at spending other people’s money. Well paid experts. Outright Democrats or chameleons politically; typical politics of the bureaucratic class. Look at the backgrounds of the Flint emergency managers:
Emergency managers are not viceroys with absolute powers. The evolution of emergency management in Michigan was frustrated by public union opposition. Five successive laws, one repealed by referendum. The law in force during the critical Flint water fiasco decisions is PA 436 of 2012. The powers it confers upon emergency managers are:
(2) Upon appointment, an emergency manager shall act for and in the place and stead of the governing body and the office of chief administrative officer of the local government. The emergency manager shall have broad powers in receivership to rectify the financial emergency and to assure the fiscal accountability of the local government and the local government’s capacity to provide or cause to be provided necessary governmental services essential to the public health, safety, and welfare. Following appointment of an emergency manager and during the pendency of receivership, the governing body and the chief administrative officer of the local government shall not exercise any of the powers of those offices except as may be specifically authorized in writing by the emergency manager or as otherwise provided by this act and are subject to any conditions required by the emergency manager.
The emergency managers replace the mayors, council, and chief administrative officers of the municipal governments. While this does indeed give them extraordinary powers of control, their control is anything but absolute. The municipal charter continues in effect and continues to protect the prerogatives of lesser bureaucrats. The vague statutory powers of emergency managers beyond replacing the mayor, council, and chief administrative officer poses unremitting legal jeopardy to emergency managers. Encourages timidity and bureaucratic subterfuge. Not absolute control.