Court Grants Twentynine Palms Writ In Battle With State Over RDA Funds

(April 17) TWENTYNINE PALMS—The Sacramento Superior Court has granted the city of Twentynine Palms a writ of mandate in its ongoing battle with the California Department of Finance in its effort to recover bond proceeds the state insisted the city must surrender to it as a consequence of the 2011 shuttering of the Twentynine Palms Redevelopment Agency.
Those bonds were issued in conjunction with the city’s effort to rejuvenate downtown Twentynine Palms as part of Project Phoenix, which was to include a community center, a 250-seat theater, classrooms, a civic plaza, a park, a paseo, residential units, a wastewater treatment plant, and improvements to the downtown fire station. The last of the bonds were issued three months before Assembly Bills X1 26 and X1 27 passed and went into effect.
Passed by the state legislature three years ago at the behest of Governor Jerry Brown, Assembly Bills XI 26 and XI 27 closed out all municipal and county redevelopment efforts statewide. A coalition of cities fought the law, but the state Supreme Court upheld the measure. While 317 of the state’s 482 incorporated cities went along with the new law without question and shut down their redevelopment agencies, 165 cities have resisted the state on the issue. That resistance ranged  from registering relatively mild protests to filing lawsuits against the state and its Department of Finance, which is the entity designated under the law to make a determination with regard to how the money that was in the possession of the former redevelopment agencies is to be disbursed.
Twentynine Palms, led by its city attorney A. Patrick Muñoz of the law firm Ruttan & Tucker, has been the most aggressive of San Bernardino County’s 24 cities in disputing the state’s action in confiscating redevelopment money and then redistributing it to other local taxing agencies or using it for education or public safety purposes.
At stake in the matter for Twentynine Palms, a city of 25,048 in San Bernardino County’s Mojave Desert outback, are two tax allocation bonds issued for a total of $8.5 million. Those bonds were intended to defray the cost of Project Phoenix.
Based on an analysis by Muñoz, the Twentynine Palms City Council publicly asserted that that AB X1 26 and AB X1 27 are trumped by federal securities regulations, meaning the money the Twentynine Palms Redevelopment Agency bonded for in 2011 must be utilized only for the purpose that bondholders were told the money would be applied toward.
The city followed Muñoz’s recommendation to have the successor agency to the redevelopment agency lay claim to the redevelopment money and declare its intent to proceed with Project Phoenix.  AB X1 26 and AB X1 27 provided for the creation of locally based oversight boards to direct the discharging of remaining redevelopment money.  In  May 2012, Muñoz drafted a contract between the successor agency and the city by which the  successor agency turned over the bond spending authority to the city with a directive that it go toward Project Phoenix. On a 4-1 vote on May 22, 2012 the city council voted unanimously to transfer the seven-member oversight board’s duties and obligations to administer the bond proceeds to “the city in its capacity as a municipal corporation.”
To reinforce that action, on February 26, 2013, the city council authorized Muñoz to file litigation against the Department of Finance so the city could move forward with the expenditure of the bond proceeds. Muñoz did so in April 2013. The city in that litigation took the position that the bond documents are contracts that created specific obligations between the city, as the issuer, and the bond purchasers, and as such are enforceable obligations such that the state cannot interfere with them. Moreover, according to Muñoz, the city would be violating IRS and SEC regulations as well as putting the tax exempt status of the bonds in jeopardy if it does not spend the money for the purpose for which the bonds were issued.
AB X1 26 and AB X1 27 contained a provision requiring any municipalities that contested the law to do so in Sacramento Superior Court.  The California Department of Finance is being represented by the California Attorney General’s Office’s civil division in the case. On December 23, the California Attorney General’s Office laid out an answer to Twentynine Palms’ legal action preparatory to an upcoming January 24 hearing on the matter.
According to deputy attorney general Michael Witmer, $12 million of the tax allocation bonds issued by the city – offered to bondholders in March 2011 – while earmarked for Project Phoenix, contained no concomitant contracts to build anything or a defined plan of how the bond proceeds were to be expended.
Witmer maintains the assertion by Muñoz and a consultant working for the city in the capacity of community development director, Matt McCleary, that Project Phoenix disbursements could be placed on the phased out redevelopment agency’s recognized obligations payment schedules runs contrary to instructions from the California Department of Finance that the project was not to be listed on the payment schedule.
The writ and documents filed in conjunction with it contest that assertion.

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