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Friday, April 28, 2006

Worse than a payday loan

It's allergy time in Portland, and something is really starting to irritate our nose for financial trouble. Now the city is issuing 25-year bonds and using some of the proceeds to pay operating expenses:

About $3.75 million will go into what bureau managers are calling "strategic investments," including adding a maintenance crew to handle sewer line breaks, treating contaminated sediment in the Columbia Slough and increasing the amount of biosolids -- otherwise known as sludge -- Portland treats.

Bureau leaders will use another $3.75 million to slow the rate of increase of city sewer bills, among the highest in the nation. The bureau had estimated a 6.1 percent increase in the fiscal year that starts July 1. The additional cash will keep that to 5.6 percent.

Borrowing to pay for maintenance crews? Uh oh. It's like taking out a second mortgage while you're putting an addition on your house, and using some of the proceeds to pay for groceries. Eventually that sort of thing catches up to you.

City Commissioner Sam Adams and Marriott say they're trying to strike a balance between taking care of the immediate pain of higher bills and the long-term risk if the city doesn't put more money into maintenance.
Borrowing money for maintenance. "Long-term risk." You'll be hearing that kind of talk a lot from here on out, as we build trams, transit mall light rail, and more streetcars to nowhere, and hand out more millions to the Homer Williams types. It's a sure sign that the house of cards is shaky. Not to mention the whole "pay-as-you-go-(under)" police and fire pension deal.

Then, of course, there's the rim shot to cap it all off:

Utility customers, for example, contributed $284,000 this year of the estimated $1.3 million for public financing of City Council campaigns.
Funny. Sad.

Comments (19)

You should link to the article, Jack. I pulled it up and don't read it quite the same way you do.

On the next bond sale ($270 million) for the Big Pipe, the City will take out 25-year bonds instead of 20-year bonds. By doing so, they pay less annually, and more over the life of the loan. Lowering the annual debt service frees up money in the current budget that can be used for rate relief or operating expenses, but it's not accurate to say the City is using bond proceeds to directly pay for operating expenses.

I think the appropriate parallel is buying a house and deciding on a 15-, 20-, or 30-year mortgage. You pay a lot less with a 15-year repayment, but most of us still choose a 30-year mortgage in order to free up money for daily operating expenses, like coming up with fare for the tram.

I think there is an argument to be had regarding the appropriate timeline for repayment (after all, we could save millions by repaying in 10 years -- but it would cost $100 bucks to flush your toilet), and also whether the freed up money should be applied exclusively to rate relief instead of new programs. But I personally think dealing with the City's infrastructure needs is a good thing, assuming that's where the money actually goes.

I'm still rewriting my letter to Martha Mahan Haines (at the SEC).

My focus is partially on the tax appraisal value of residential property. If residential homeowners obtain federally related loans that are contingent on owner occupancy then they should get an adjustment in like manner to that for affordable housing, as per a recent Oregon Supreme Court case.

I could not get a waiver of the costs, from the county, to obtain the tax and sales data so as to make a "hard" analysis. My request for cost waiver was simply not primarily in the public interest, asserted as a conclusion with not a hint of either evidenciary support or analysis of those facts.

So, Miles, how close are we to the limits for borrowing based on the tax appraisal value of taxable property? What if the price level of homes drop back to 2000 levels?

As I note in my rarely updated blog, I think this transfer of funds from water/sewer enterprises to the general fund may be in violation of the curtain separating the enterprise and government functions of the city.

Here's the riddle: If Commissioner Leonard was opposed to Poo Powered Elections, why did he countenance tapping his bureaus' bucks?

I think the appropriate parallel is buying a house and deciding on a 15-, 20-, or 30-year mortgage. You pay a lot less with a 15-year repayment, but most of us still choose a 30-year mortgage in order to free up money for daily operating expenses, like coming up with fare for the tram.

Yes, but the point of my post is that they are using some of the loan money to pay for things like maintenance. That's like taking a second mortgage on your house to pay for groceries.

There once was a time when home equity loans were called home improvement loans.

Monetary stimulus through debt, any kind of debt, has become an institutionalized alternative to federal economic stimulus through public works that are targeted at generating wage income relief. The feds will think that the debt, for the sake of debt, is good . . . so they would not find grocery purchases too objectionable.

Would you like to take out a home improvement loan and, hush hush, go on a cruise?

CoP is in hock for over $2 billion now, with at least $1 billion slated to be added over the next decade. What's to stop them from pushing it ... infinitely ... higher?

Not the bond rating agencies whose oversight would push CoP interest rates up as we edge close to the financially prudent limit. See what a fine job they did before San Diego's meltdown ... or in Orange County.

The typical expert fix for municipal bankruptcies is to bring in temporary regents to hike taxes and issue massive amounts of ultra-long term bonds. For the most part, costs are not reduced and spending returns to the usual manner of irresponsibility. As with runaway spending on legacy costs, we simply take $$ from or cannibalize public services of the future taxpayers.

Portland's politicians are Candidates Gone Wild on Debt! During the "debates" somebody ought to put the question: "Exactly how much public debt is proper for CoP? Are we there yet?"

Jack: Yes, but the point of my post is that they are using some of the loan money to pay for things like maintenance. That's like taking a second mortgage on your house to pay for groceries.

That's not what the article says they're doing. All of the bond proceeds will pay for the Big Pipe. By extending the repayment from 20 to 25 years, they lower the annual debt service, which means they have more operating revenue to spend on things like maintenance. It's no different than deciding on a 15- or 30-year mortgage -- the loan pays for the house regardless, but it affects how much of your salary can be used for groceries versus mortgage payments.


Write-in "Ron Ledbury" for City Auditor.

My committee (whatever) is "Ron Ledbury for a Debt Free Portland."

I just need three or four write-in's, I suppose -- more than Donald Duck or Mickey Mouse -- to have a point to argue in court when I do go and complain about the refusal of the current Auditor to place my name on the ballot.

Improved "transparency" and actual critique should not translate to a lower bond rating and a higher coupon rate, should it?

If I were the Auditor I would immediately demand to personally be able to opt-out of PERS, by the way, and thereafter insist that each individual has that very same right. Oh, what a mess that would make? (My constitutionally mandated 6 percent contribution must go into US Treasuries, I would insist, exclusively, or to cover the pay-as-you-go feature of the so-caller tier one PERS retirees.)

All of the bond proceeds will pay for the Big Pipe.

I guess we're reading different articles:

About $3.75 million will go into what bureau managers are calling "strategic investments," including adding a maintenance crew to handle sewer line breaks

You see that? "Maintenance." Long-term borrowing to pay for ongoing maintenance. Read it.

It may be useful to recall that Certificates of Participation (COPs) were initially developed by Wall Street as an alternative to General Obligation bonds for municipalities. This is because state constitutions typically require that G.O. bonds cannot be issued without a public vote.

The security for G.O. bonds is the assessed property of the jurisdiction; in most states, a judge can in fact order the imposition of increased property taxes to prevent a default of G.O. bonds. Therefore, G.O. bonds are considered the lowest-risk municipal security, and carry the by far the lowest interest rate.

Municipalities turned eagerly to COPs because their governing bodies don't have to directly explain the use of funds to those pesky voters for their approval.

City councils and county commissions enjoy making huge financial decisions with minimum electoral oversight; it's SO much simpler. Especially if what the city parents want to buy is something that a majority of the electorate might see as a less-than-pressing need. Or maybe even an irresponsible bagatelle. (How do you do that tram rimshot thing?)

But COPs are generally secured only by the municipality's ongoing revenue stream, and are subject to annual appropriation. So the interest rate is much higher -- as I recall, 4-5 points.

Now, I'm new to Oregon (moved from Denver last August: fell in love, and she's here). So I assume, but don't know, that this all applies as much in The City That Works Sometimes as in The Queen City of The Plains.

Is this true in OR and PDX? Are we already paying that irresponsible premium of interest charges on COPs because of city management avoidance of G.O. bond elections? Surely there is some PSU Ph.D. out there who can validate or correct me instantly.

And so kudos to Ramon and Ron Ledbury for their cautions, and I strongly agree with Jack that paying for maintenance services and ongoing operational costs with bond or bond-equivalent infrastructure funds like COPs is lousy fiscal policy. In a downturn, when the annual revenue stream is stressed, that bad habit can bite hard.

Full disclosure: Some of my best friends are PSU Ph.D.'s and Ph.D. candidates, like Lew Frederick, for whom I am #2 on his County Commission campaign staff. Hey, most pints of moldy raspberries still include a few good ones, if you don't mind staining your fingers to pick them out. Lew is such a one.


Oregon was an innovator on Certificates of Participation. See Kane v. Goldschmidt, 308 Or 573 (1989). (Click through on "go to requested page.")

PERS is "independent" too, whatever that means. That is, there is absolutely no judicially compellable right to dip into future appropriations, to slurp at the head of the line, as if there is "liability" on a par with full faith and credit bonds. PDX is a small town, and so too is the state, where the web of interconnectedness is small enough to be swamped by a few dons.

I hope you could convince Lew to temporarily set aside the notion of the need for "replacement revenue" as a precondition for addressing anything pertaining to property taxation. Our incomes have not gone up even though property tax valuations have. This increase in apparent wealth is not wealth but rather an increase in debt, in aggregate across a wide spectrum of citizens. An anti-deficiency judgment law might temper the recklessness of lenders, and get folks out of the belief that they must prop up home prices as a strategy in and of itself.

I did read it, and I'm trying to politely point out that you misread it. From Anna Griffin's piece (emphasis added, but I don't know how to do the bold/italic tricky stuff):

"Like homeowners eager to put an addition on the house, the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services is STRETCHING OUT THE DEBT on the massive Big Pipe sewer project to have a little spare cash in the near future. But not all their customers are happy with how bureau leaders are opting to spend the short-term SAVINGS, because only about half the annual SAVINGS will go to reduce the amount rates rise each year. The rest will go into maintenance projects and cleanup efforts. . . . Another $270 million will go out to the public next month, and this time, the city will take 25 years to repay. The result is the same as if you refinanced your mortgage: Portland customers will PAY LESS IN DEBT SERVICE each year but more in the end in interest rates. Bureau of Environmental Services change-counters estimate that will cost as much as $40 million more in interest during the life of the debt but SAVE ABOUT $8 MILLION A YEAR IN DEBT REPAYMENTS."

I think it's pretty clear that by lengthening the repayment, BES gets debt service savings. They are using those savings to pay for things like maintenance crews. If you want to criticize how they are using the debt service savings, fine, but claiming they are using long-term bond proceeds to pay for maintenance crews is not accurate.

Email Anna -- I think she'll back me up on this one.


In the UK they are looking at 40 year mortgages rather than 30 years. That would make it easier to buy overpriced homes through such a tweak in financing. How would you measure today the consequence of continuing to be indebted between years 30 and 40? A debt-service-only focus is all too simple. It might be enough to get a wishful home buyer to enter into an Adjustable Rate Mortgage in a rising interest rate environment, but professionals should know better.

An issue often not discussed in refinancing of homes is that the last payment date for the retired loan is extended out several years while the mortgage broker points only to the "payments" as if that were all that mattered. It is a routine SALES technique. The formula is well rehearsed.

It is about boosting the principal amount.

If you want to criticize how they are using the debt service savings, fine, but claiming they are using long-term bond proceeds to pay for maintenance crews is not accurate.

"Savings" is an interesting choice of words for spending $40 million more.

Credit card companies are already under fire for having too-low "minimum payment" amounts that stretch consumer debt out to ridiculous lengths of time. I know of no one who considers lower-monthly payments --with a higher borrowing cost--to be "savings."

If you want to criticize how they are using the debt service savings, fine, but claiming they are using long-term bond proceeds to pay for maintenance crews is not accurate.

Email Anna -- I think she'll back me up on this one.

Thanks, but I think I'll pass on going to those lengths just to parse an ambiguous Oregonian article.

Even if you're right, this is like turning your 20-year mortgage loan into a 30-year mortgage loan, at a higher interest rate, just to lower your monthly payment so that you can afford groceries. It's a dumb move, unless you're desperate. With $2 billion of IOU's out there, the City Council is starting to look quite reckless to me.

$2 billion is a nice round number and overstatement is to be avoided, however, the actual amount of CoP debt is likely at least 14% greater than that.

If the amount of CoP debt increased only 5.2% in the past year, as it did in the prior year, then the total amount of debt as of 6/30/06 will be about $2,278,786,696.

2005 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report

"As of June 30, 2005, the City had total bonded debt outstanding of $2,165,905,387." (p.27)

Total debt increase from prior year: $107,289,654. (p.28)

Thanks Ramom, folks should also cruise to page 60 and 61 of that same document, what I find even scarier is that of the Cities $4.5 Billion in Capital assets, ie the Parks, Fire Stations, etc. The other Hidden Bonds are the preventive and restorative maintenance that has not been done to keep the city viable. The money diverted to PDC to create assets is not only the bonded endebtedness but the reallocation of the money that should be reinvested in the existing infrastructure to prevent potholes, repair roofs, etc.
Page 60 shows that of $4.5 billion in assets just under $2.2 billion has been "burned" or the City is using assets with out repairing or replacing them at a rate fast enough to preserve their net value, and we are losing ground to the tune of $150 million a year or roughly half of the GF discresionary dollars not "earmarked". Add that two our bond repayments.

If you keep reading past page 60 some big numbers start to come up in bond debt as we predict the replacement of the water system and continue with this UR expansion, without the TIF cash flow to support survices to is.

What this spells out is the only people to foot the bill are the taxpayers.

Does anyone know what a "good" level of indebtedness is for a city of Portland's size? The FY 05-06 net budget for the city is just under $2 billion ($1.98 billion, according to the budget website). If total outstanding debts are $2.3 billion, that means debt is about 116% of the operating budget.

Personally, including my house, my debt is about three times my annual operating budget. The federal government is many, many times more. I'm not saying either are a good example to follow (certainly not the feds), but lacking any comparative basis, I'm also not sure $2.3 billion in debt is bad for a city this size.

Swimmer's point about deferred maintenance is a good one. And I would point out that extending the Big Pipe debt from 20 to 25 years frees up money for that maintenance. The other alternative is to jack up sewer rates, and I suspect that would come under heavy criticism from most of us.


It is not necessarily about level of indebtedness, it is ironicly that buzz word "sustainability" along with GREENIE speak, you also need to deal in economic sustainability. Most small businesses and ironically bankrusy of Orange County and recently the near bankrupsy of Cities like San Diego and NYC are not from thier indebtedness as much as thier inability to meet cash flow requirements to keep operating. The indebetedness matters to the point the loan repayment cuts into the money they need for day to day operations.

When BES for example makes an investment and goes into debt the payments are made by future billings, it is only bad if the asset wears out before the loan has been paid off, or the asset is not maintained and wears out or requires a lot of fixin during the life.

The general goverment assets however, that we bond to build that do not have revenue streams to pay for them, like fire stations, it is like when a person buys a car with an upside down loan. The car wears out and you still owe money. Portland with this TIF, Tax Increment Financing, hurts even more because the money to pay for operating costs and upkeep, goes to pay off bonds, so property tax dollars have to be stretched and existing assets are neglected. Hence the symptom of this is the overall degradation of capital assets is happening at the $150 million/year noted in the last post.

Generally when the City cannot properly budget and pay for its ongoing operating costs, ie the page 61 note that says roads are going downhill at $130 million a year, then it has too much debt in GO's and is paying too much in "credit card" payments to pay to put a new roof on the house they live in.

Hope that helps.

PS. Schools and other public services are not doing very well keeping up with operating costs either.


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Evelyn Waugh - Brideshead Revisited
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Penda Diakité - I Lost My Tooth in Africa
Grace Lin - The Year of the Rat
Oscar Hijuelos - Mr. Ives' Christmas
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Steven Hart - The Last Three Miles
David Sedaris - Me Talk Pretty One Day
Karen Armstrong - The Spiral Staircase
Charles Larson - The Portland Murders
Adrian Wojnarowski - The Miracle of St. Anthony
William H. Colby - Long Goodbye
Steven D. Stark - Meet the Beatles
Phil Stanford - Portland Confidential
Rick Moody - Garden State
Jonathan Schwartz - All in Good Time
David Sedaris - Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim
Anthony Holden - Big Deal
Robert J. Spitzer - The Spirit of Leadership
James McManus - Positively Fifth Street
Jeff Noon - Vurt

Road Work

Miles run year to date: 5
At this date last year: 3
Total run in 2017: 113
In 2016: 155
In 2015: 271
In 2014: 401
In 2013: 257
In 2012: 129
In 2011: 113
In 2010: 125
In 2009: 67
In 2008: 28
In 2007: 113
In 2006: 100
In 2005: 149
In 2004: 204
In 2003: 269

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