Harrisburg is insolvent

The capital of the Keystone State is swirling with political infighting and power grabs over the issue of money. There is just not enough of it to pay all of Harrisburg’s creditors who have appeared at the door. Now that the county has said “Enough!” to providing more loans to cover debt payments, it’s the end of road and events are accelerating.

Harrisburg had already filed for municipal bankruptcy a week ago, but that didn’t stop the state from finalizing legislation that will put the city into receivership. Pennsylvania’s latest move adds another layer of complexity to the resolution process. The Harrisburg City Council responded to the state’s action with the following statement published in the Patriot News:

“First, they attempted to restrict the city’s ability to generate revenue and negotiate with its creditors, which were allowed in the Act 47 law, as well as penalize the city if it filed for bankruptcy. But that wasn’t good enough. Now, this takeover legislation gives a receiver unlimited power to sell any resource the city and its authorities have, without allowing Harrisburg an alternate source of revenue.”

“Wall Street can get paid 100 cents on the dollar and the people of Harrisburg will be subjected to exorbitant property tax and other increases so that we can pay our operating budget. And after all the city’s assets are sold and the city is on its knees, the receiver has the ability to file for bankruptcy to pick the bones of our city clean.”

Harrisburg mayor Linda Thompson rightly contends, in the Bloomberg video above, that the city is not technically in bankruptcy. This is true because the federal bankruptcy judge overseeing Harrisburg’s case has not yet ordered a public notice of the Chapter 9 bankruptcy filing to be publicized in the Wall Street Journal and Harrisburg Patriot News. But this is a mere technicality because Mayor Thompson’s city is drowning in debt and doesn’t have sufficient assets and annual cash flows to support that debt. In blunt terms Harrisburg is insolvent; there are three paths forward that it can travel.

Harrisburg has more than incinerator debt

The current bankruptcy drama in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania is just the third act of a long running effort to make the city something more than a corridor for those who commute into the city for work. Most of the current debt problems of Harrisburg stem from failed projects intended to revitalize the city and extremely bad business decisions.

The chart above shows the massive increase in Harrisburg’s population that occurred up to 1950 then starting falling steeply since mid-century. The city’s population was actually smaller in 2010 than it was in 1900. It’s just one of many American cities that has seen its vitality and population fade away.

Almost all the news coverage now is focused on the current players and their attempts to use the law to bend events towards their vision of the future. For example, the mayor, the county and the state are petitioning in bankruptcy court to halt the actions of the city council who filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy. The bankruptcy judge will sort out these claims in an emergency court hearing on Monday. It’s high drama and makes for great journalism.

The Dummies Guide to the Pension Crisis

Hat tip to Ted Nesi of for pointing out this excellent union sponsored video that discusses the problems for the public pensions of Rhode Island. Although the details are specific to that state the structural problems apply to almost every state because public pensions across America are underfunded. Every state faces problems that are politically or financially difficult. Either taxpayers will be paying more to top pension plans or retirees will be receiving smaller pension payments. Pension reform is a complex topic and I hope we see more educational efforts like this video.

Further: Judge Taft-Carter issues decision in pivotal RI pension case

Desperation costs are steep

Harrisburg, the state capital of Pennsylvania, has narrowly averted filing for Chapter 9 bankruptcy as their independent city Parking Authority has secured a loan to advance future payments to the city for use of city land. Unfortunately the unnamed lender will be charging the Authority 10.75% interest. The costs of desperation are steep. This one-off lease payment from the Parking Authority allows the city to make their September 15th bond payment on their crushing incinerator debt and avoid Chapter 9, but what about the next bond payment in 2012? They don’t seem to have any more assets to borrow against. So they’ve postponed the problem but not solved it. From Bloomberg:

The Parking Authority will borrow to make the payment, and some on the council balked at the interest rate of as much as 10.75 percent on the loan. About a third of the city’s 49,500 residents live below the federal poverty level. The lease covers land under several garages, and the loan costs may reduce the authority’s income, which provides revenue to the city.

Local governments’ tough choices between payrolls or bond payments?

Harrisburg walks the well worn path

The capitol city of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg, is functionally if not legally bankrupt. Yesterday the City council voted against the mayor’s rescue plan which would have brought them a small reprieve but would not have fixed their core financial issues. The city’s main problem is a grossly expensive incinerator project which has burdened the city with way too much debt. Their situation is similar to the sewer system woes of  Jefferson County, Alabama on about one tenth the scale. Like Jefferson County, anger about bondholders being prioritized ahead of the needs of citizens was on display at yesterday’s city council meeting. From Reuters:

“Wall Street gets paid and Main Street gets the shaft,” Councilman Brad Koplinski, who voted against the plan, said during the angry, packed council meeting.

At the root of Harrisburg’s troubles is a complicated financing scheme used to fund a state-of-the-art revamp of its trash-burning incinerator that left the city saddled with a $300 million debt.

Irresponsible debt practices

Politicians start telling the truth

In response to Moody’s placing the state’s Aaa credit rating on review, Tennessee’s News Channel 5 filed this story and video, two very good examples of a state government reacting to a possible downgrade. In the video, municipal bond expert and Metro Councilmember Emily Evans says:

There is no getting away from the fact that we have engaged in debt practices that have been irresponsible and we are going to pay a price and we need to pony up and pay it.

Our massive debt load is a large issue overhanging America and a big bump in the road to economic recovery. Facing the facts and telling the truth are necessary to start the process of getting fiscal houses in order.

Decades-long infatuation with financing our spending

Decades-long infatuation with financing our spending

Sheila Bair, who served as Chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation for five years through the financial crisis, has completed her term. In a weekend op-ed in the Washington Post, she urges America to rid itself of its addiction to financing consumption and “growth” with debt. This is the core requirement for America to become financially stable again and to return to “real” growth. From Bair’s Washington Post oped:

Now that I’m stepping down, I want to sound the alarm again. The common thread running through all the causes of our economic tumult is a pervasive and persistent insistence on favoring the short term over the long term, impulse over patience. We overvalue the quick return on investment and unduly discount the long-term consequences of that decision-making.

Our decades-long infatuation with financing our spending through ever-growing debt, in the private and public sector alike, is the ultimate manifestation of short-term thinking. And that thinking, particularly in business and in government, is actually getting worse, not better, as we look for solutions to put our economy on a sounder footing.

No allowance if you don’t do your homework

Photo: California State Controller John Chiang

No allowance if you don’t do your homework

California’s Legislature rushed through a budget last week that they thought was balanced. The State Comptroller has ruled otherwise, and now he is withholding lawmakers’ salaries, the New York Times reports today:

California lawmakers will lose at least a week’s pay and living expenses because the state budget they passed last week was not balanced, the state controller said Tuesday.

When the Legislature approved the budget, several lawmakers praised themselves for passing it on time for only the second time in two decades. And they assumed that meeting the deadline would allow them to collect their full paychecks.

Pennsylvania casts sunshine on muni swaps

When it comes to municipal derivatives, Wall Street has brutalized the poor Keystone State. Though many municipalities, such as Alabama’s Jefferson County, have suffered bigger losses from muni swaps, Pennsylvania is like a cancer cluster of bad derivative deals. State Auditor General Jack Wagner wants to do something about that, and last month he announced that Pennsylvania is creating a public registry of local government swaps. I hope this is a trend for other states. From the office of the Auditor General:

Auditor General Jack Wagner today asked the Department of Community and Economic Development to strengthen its oversight of school districts’ and local municipalities’ interest-rate swaps agreements to make the cost of these risky transactions more open and transparent to taxpayers.

In a letter to DCED [Department of Community and Economic Development] Secretary George Cornelius, Wagner asked the department to require all local governments, municipal authorities, and agencies of state government to file their swap agreements upon execution and to update the status and financial results of those swaps every three months. Taxpayers would then know how much was paid in fees and commissions for each swap, how much the swap costs the public entity each month, how much money the swap has lost, and how much could be lost under the worst case scenario, Wagner said.

Muniland’s black swans

Are we looking in the wrong places?

John Carney of CNBC argues for the possibility of a black swan event for muniland.

He’s right about unknown risks but I think he is looking in the wrong place.

He doesn’t mention municipal derivatives in his analysis. I mean interest rate swaps not municipal credit default swaps.

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