When public projects get too risky
Posted by David Kassel on April 10, 2011
In the March/April issue of Public Administration Review, two academic researchers describe an extraordinary breakdown in public sector management.
In “Waste in the Sewer: The Collapse of Accountability and Transparency in Public Finance in Jefferson County, Alabama,” Michael Howell-Moroney and Jeremy Hall detail a highly risky debt scheme that county officials engaged in, hoping to finance a major sewer project without raising sewer rates. It didn’t work.
The scheme involved the county’s use of auction rate debt and financial derivative instruments known as rate swaps — yes, the same types of instruments that fueled the subprime mortgage crisis. The whole thing went awry when the national mortgage crisis hit; and, as of the writing of the article, Jefferson County was on the verge of bankruptcy, unable to pay service on $3.3 billion worth of sewer debt. Jefferson County is relatively small by national standards, but it holds the sixth highest level of debt of any county in the nation. If the county were to go bankrupt, it would be the largest municpal bankrupty in U.S. history.
Howell-Moroney and Hall take us step by step through a thicket of poor judgment by private financial institutions, mismanagement and corruption by state and county officials, and a lack of adequate oversight by regulatory authorities. They tell a compelling story, but it should be noted that Jefferson County isn’t alone in engaging in risky financial and managerial schemes for public projects, although it appears to have dug itself deeper into a financial and legal mess than most.
In recent years, municipalities around the country have resorted to novel and often complex financial and managerial arrangements in undertaking similar capital projects. Often termed “public-private partnerships,” these are strictly business arrangements, and the long-term financial risks are often disproportionately placed on the public sector entities.
I discuss some of these cases in my book, “Managing Public Sector Projects,” such as that of Cranston, Rhode Island, which entered into a 25-year agreement with a contractor to upgrade its wastewater treatment system. The agreement involved a $48 million up-front cash advance to the city to be paid back over the life of the contract. Cranston projected it would improve its municipal credit rating due to the contract, but, in fact, the opposite occurred — its bond rating went down. In the 10-year period following the 1997 contract signing, the city’s sewer rates jumped 55 percent.
In Lynn, Massachusetts, the sewer commission sought a legislative exemption in 1998 from the state’s public works bidding law to undertake a major sewer sewer system and treatment plant upgrade. The commission ended up with a non-competitive solicitation process for sewer contractors that failed to identify beforehand the specifications of the sewer system it wanted. The result was the approval of a proposal that was projected by the Massachusetts Inspector General to cost $22 million more than if the process had been competitively bid.
Jefferson County appears to have combined no-bid contracting arrangements with risky financing. Program specifications were also missing in this case, and the county ended up approving numerous sewer projects that were found to be not required under terms of a consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency.
To date, 21 Jefferson County employees and private contractors have been indicted by federal prosecutors in connection with the sewer program, according to Howell-Moroney and Hall. Numerous no-bid contract and change orders were allegedly approved by county officials in exchange for bribes and other favors. The $10 million to $20 million of additional costs found to have resulted from those alleged instances of fraud and mismanagement was then multiplied many times over by the debacle of the interest swap arrangements.
Howell-Moroney and Hall call for improved interest rate swap regulation and improved financial risk analysis by private-sector ratings agencies. They also call on public agencies, such as Jefferson County government, to specify clearer goals and objectives in undertaking public projects.
These are worthwhile recommendations. We’re finding out the hard way not only that there are no easy financial paths to follow in undertaking critically important public sector projects, but those who promise easy fixes are not to be trusted.
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