Thursday, October 17, 2013

IRS auditing entrepreneurial Texas jails that improperly used tax-exempt bonds

Finally, the IRS has begun to dig into shady Texas jail schemes where publicly backed bonds were used to enrich private companies, socializing risk while privatizing potential profits. Purchasers of those bonds may soon be on the hook for taxes on their earnings and counties could see their own bond ratings reduced. Turns out, the whole idea of filling entrepreneurial jails with federal inmates should never have qualified for issuance of tax-exempt bonds in the first place.

According to The Bond Buyer (Oct. 17, behind paywall, though you can sign up for a two week trial subscription), "Roughly $23 million of tax-exempt senior lien revenue bonds issued in 2003 to finance a jail may be taxable private activity bonds, an Internal Revenue Service agent has told the West Texas Detention Facility Corp." in Hudspeth County. And they're not the only one:
The jail bond deal is the latest of dozens under audit where the IRS has suggested that significant amounts of federal inmates paid for by the federal government and management contracts with private parties make the bonds taxable private-activity bonds.

Tax-exempt bonds are private-activity bonds if more than 10% of the proceeds are for private use and more than 10% of the payments for debt service are from private parties. Under federal tax laws and rules, the federal government is considered a nongovernmental or private entity. PABs are only tax-exempt if they are issued for a “qualified” purpose, and a jail is not one of these.
For example, in August (8/23), The Bond Buyer reported that:
Bond counsel Jackson Walker LLP, based in Houston, has tentatively agreed to pay $400,000 to settle a tax dispute between Crystal City Public Facility Corp. in Texas and the Internal Revenue Service over $13.94 million of revenue bonds issued to finance prison facilities. The bonds were issued in 2003, but have been under scrutiny by the IRS since 2010 and in default since last year when the U.S. Marshal withdrew inmates because misconduct and security problems, forcing the facilities to close in May 2012 for repairs and improvements.
Their liability would have been greater if they'd succeeded in getting enough federal inmates to pay the bills.
The IRS’ concerns were two-fold, according to bond-related documents. First the IRS took issue with the management contract the city had with BRG, under which the net profits were split between the two. The IRS argued this compensation structure suggested “an equity interest in the operation of the bond-financed facility,” creating a private use and payments problem.

In addition, the IRS claimed the prison had too many federal inmates. Federal inmates are considered private, not public, parties under the tax law. The IRS contended that the economics of the prison would not work without substantial federal, and therefore private, use and payments. The federal government tends to pay more for incarceration of its inmates that state or local governments.
The only reason the Crystal City jail wasn't dinged harder was that the federal inmates never materialized. If they had, "Normally that would cause a problem, but since the bonds are in default, bondholders have not been receiving any tax-exempt interest that the IRS could declare taxable."

Another facility in Burnet County did find federal inmates to fill their extra beds, but as a result may now lose the bonds' tax-exempt status, The Bond Buyer reported Aug. 8:
This week, U.S. Bank N.A. filed event notices for two separate issuers that financed jails saying the IRS had indicated the tax-exempt bonds or COPs were not tax-exempt. The bank was trustee for both sets of bonds.

One notice said the Burnet County, Tex., Public Facility Corp. has received four letters from the IRS, the first on Dec. 12, 2011 and the most recent on April 12 of this year, seeking information about $35.38 million of project revenue bonds that were issued in 2008 to build a jail.

The bank said that, in the most recent IRS letter, the issuer was asked to provide information “regarding a preliminary conclusion by the IRS that the ... bonds ... violate certain Internal Revenue Code rules that cause [them] to be taxable.” The notice said the issuer is cooperating with the IRS and that “it is unknown at this time what the outcome of the IRS examination will be.”
Bill Neve, president of the Burnet County Public Facility Corp., said the county built the 586-bed jail to hold county prisoners but provided for some extra space so it wouldn’t have to expand the jail during the next 20 years or so. The IRS is concerned about the number of federal prisoners in the jail, many of whom were housed for less than 100 days, he said.

The PAB rules contain an exception for short-term private use and define that to be less than 100 days. But Neve and other sources indicated that if the IRS thinks there is a significant number of federal inmates, it does not take that exemption into account.
In yet another instance down in Willacy County, The Bond Buyer reported Aug. 28th that the bond terms actually contemplated the possibility that the tax-exemption would be disallowed, showing they knew up front this was a dicey deal:
Bonds issued for Willacy County, Texas’s $7 million jail in the town of Raymondville are among several being audited by the Internal Revenue Service to determine whether its bonds should lose their tax exemption, according to County Judge John F. Gonzales.

Gonzales disclosed the audit at a meeting of the Willacy County Commissioners Court earlier this month, according to the Valley Morning Star of Harlingen.

The south Texas county, which has invested heavily in the prison industry, has a large stake in the tax-exempt status of the prisons. The county seat of Raymondville has earned the nickname “Prisonville” because of its heavy concentration of private lockups, most housing federal inmates on immigration violations.

Refinancing the $3 million of outstanding bonds as taxable would cost the county about $200,000, Gonzales said. The jail was built using 2004 bonds bearing 7.5% coupons on maturities of 2029 with yields of 7.75%, according to the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board’s Emma Web site.

The original $7.65 million of unrated bonds were issued in the name of the County Jail Public Facility Corp. of Willacy County. ...

According to the official statement for the 2004 deal, interest rates would rise to 140% of the original issue rate if the deal were found to be taxable, or the issuer could redeem the tax-exempt bonds at a price equal to 105% of principal, plus accrued interest.
For barely populated Willacy County, it should be noted, $200K is real money.

The facility in Jones County that the Legislature refused to bail out last spring was another example of a failed "public-private partnership" whose bonds would lose their tax exemption if it were filled with federal inmates. The Bond Buyer reported May 2
The prison was pitched as an economic stimulus measure that would provide 200 jobs and annual economic impact of $5 million.  County commissioners promised county taxpayers that the for-profit prison would rely on lease payments from the state and never require local tax support. ...

The bonds used to build the prison carried junk ratings of BB from Standard & Poor’s.  Original coupons ranged from 7.25% to 9%. That rating fell to D when the default occurred. ...

The bonds were issued by the Midwest Public Facility Corp., a conduit issuer overseen by the county commissioners.  The bonds were issued as tax-exempt debt.  The issuer failed to make its $2.23 million interest and principal payment due on Oct. 1, 2011.
Meanwhile, The Bond Buyer reported Aug. 16, "Zapata County, Texas, may pay a settlement or refund bonds after an audit of $9.97 million of its debt by the Internal Revenue Service."

Lots of Texas counties have entered into these sorts of entrepreneurial jail deals and many of them have gone bust because federal inmates they counted on to pay the bills never materialized. These stories, though, show these were ill-considered and likely illegal schemes from the get-go - even if they "worked" and federal inmates were found to cover costs. Many Texas counties, like McLennan (Waco), already have had to raise taxes to cover costs for empty, never-should-have-been-built lockups. Now, it's clear their problems won't subside even if those much-touted federal inmates ever do arrive.

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