Good read: Ravitch’s road to fiscal health – By George J. Marlin

The following appears in the June 6-12, 2014 issue of the Long Island Business News:

Eighty-year-old Richard Ravitch has had a remarkable life. The skilled entrepreneur made a fortune early on in Manhattan real estate, and free of financial woes he went on to serve the people of New York in various capacities – most recently as Gov. David Paterson’s appointed lieutenant governor.

In his memoir, “So Much To Do: A Full Life of Business, Politics and Confronting Fiscal Crisis,” Ravitch describes his contributions during New York’s fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s, his stewardship at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and his role in later years as a “wise man” whose advice on municipal matters has been widely sought.

While his memoir is at times self-serving – all such works are – it is nevertheless filled with lessons taxpayers and elected officials can apply to present-day fiscal challenges.

It all began in 1975, when newly sworn-in Gov. Hugh Carey asked Ravitch to take over the ailing Urban Development Corp. Created by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in 1968 after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., UDC issued debt, backed with the state’s moral obligations to build housing in “substandard blighted areas.”

But the corporation was poorly run, and the investment community refused to underwrite additional debt. In February 1975, UDC defaulted on $104.5 million worth of notes.

The politically green Ravitch, with Carey’s blessing, brought the bankers together and threatened to file bankruptcy. “The banks blinked,” he writes in his memoir. “They agreed to withdraw their set-offs against UDC accounts.”

Ravitch helped create a plan that remedied the default, affirmed the state’s “moral obligation” to meet UDC’s principal and interest payments to bondholders and prevented chaos in the financial markets.

The UDC defaulted at the same time that New York City was running into fiscal difficulties. In 1975, city expenditures totaled $12.8 billion and revenues $10.9 billion. Fifty-six percent of locally raised taxes were appropriated for debt services, pension and Social Security payments. Years of budgetary gimmicks, phantom revenues, capitalization of expenditures and excessive use of short-term debt to fund daily operations forced the financial markets to close their doors to the city in 1976.

Ravitch was present at the creation of the Municipal Assistance Corp. and the Emergency Financial Control Board, which saved the city from bankruptcy. He also played a key roll in convincing the teachers union to use pension-fund assets to purchase long-term MAC bonds, whose proceeds were used to pay off the city’s heavy load of short-term debt.

One observation Ravitch makes that all New York elected officials, particularly those on Long Island, should heed: “The city’s most egregiously misleading gimmick … was to treat the proceeds of borrowing as revenues and to use these revenues to claim that the budget was in balance.” This gimmick brought NYC to its fiscal knees and may soon do the same to Nassau and Suffolk counties.

As lieutenant governor, he blew the whistle on the state’s cash accounting abuses, “which enables the state to avoid giving the public the bad news that expenditures may be growing faster than recurring revenues.” He has rightly called for state and local municipalities to abandon deceptive cash accounting and to adopt GAAP accrual standards.

Since that time, Ravitch has served on a long list of boards and commissions. After he left public office in 2011, he became co-chairman of the State Budget Crisis Task Force and has continued to make the case that “deceptive budgeting and borrowing practices are crippling our state’s ability to do what they can do – invest in the physical and human infrastructure the country needs to thrive.”

Just this past month, a judge in Michigan overseeing the Detroit bankruptcy case appointed him a special advisor.

If you want to learn what it takes to fix our current fiscal ills, read Ravitch’s memoir.

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