SAN BERNARDINO, CA – San Bernardino’s City Council voted to become the third California city this year to file for bankruptcy, as it struggles with declining tax revenue, growing employee costs and accounting discrepancies.
The council last night voted 4 to 2, with one abstention, to authorize a filing under Chapter 9 of the U.S. bankruptcy law. The city of 209,000, about 65 miles (105 kilometers) east of Los Angeles, is so broke it can’t make its payroll, interim City Manager Andrea Travis-Miller said.
“If the employees are not paid on Aug. 15, on Aug. 16 there will be a mass exodus of city employees,” City Attorney James Penman told the council before the vote. “People are not going to work when they don’t get paid. Most of our employees will not show up to work. That would include police, fire, refuse, everybody. The city will virtually shut down.”
A San Bernardino filing would follow that of Stockton, a community of 292,000 east of San Francisco, which on June 28 became the biggest U.S. city to go into bankruptcy. Mammoth Lakes, a mountain resort of 8,200, filed for protection from creditors July 3 saying it can’t afford to pay a $43 million legal judgment, more than twice its general-fund spending for the year.
“The specific municipalities that are pursuing Chapter 9 are the cases where longstanding economic strains, in many cases reaching back to early 1990s, created the underlying fiscal stress,” Trident Municipal Research, which tracks the $3.7 trillion muni market from New York, said in a note to clients today. Plunging housing prices and the state’s fiscal challenges drove the communities “past the tipping point into crisis,” the firm said.
A Chapter 9 filing would allow San Bernardino to suspend payments to creditors while it seeks court approval for a plan that balances revenue with debt. Travis-Miller said a filing could take a month to prepare.
“When you’ve got headlines like this, it creates anxiety for investors,” said Robert Miller, a senior portfolio manager in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, for Wells Capital Management, which oversees about $30 billion in munis. Buyers of bonds sold by California issuers “are going to require higher rates of return, especially at the local level.”
Even with Stockton’s bankruptcy vote, municipal bonds gained today. Yields on 10-year tax-exempt debt rated AAA fell 0.02 percentage point to 1.86 percent, the lowest in about a month, according to Bloomberg Valuation data as of noon in New York.
Confronting a $45 million shortfall, San Bernardino is facing insolvency because of accounting errors, deficit spending, pension and debt costs, and lack of revenue growth, according to a June 26 budget analysis posted on the city’s website. Officials have declared fiscal emergencies, negotiated for concessions from employees and reduced the workforce by 20 percent in four years.
“Reorganization may be the only way to keep the city of San Bernardino on life support,” said Wendy McCammack, one of the seven council members. “This is the hardest decision this councilwoman has ever had to make.”
A law signed by Governor Jerry Brown that took effect this year requires municipalities to pursue mediation or declare a fiscal emergency before seeking bankruptcy protection. The law was sought by public-employee unions after Vallejo, a city of 120,000 in the San Francisco Bay area, which went bankrupt in 2008 and asked a court to help it void labor contracts.
It was unclear whether San Bernardino would need to go through mediation.
Penman, the city attorney, said during the meeting that former municipal employees had understated the extent of San Bernardino’s fiscal woes in “falsified” reports over the past 16 years. He declined to name anyone. Mayor Patrick Morris, who took office in 2006, said it was the first time he’d heard such allegations.
“This is a wholesale indictment of all of the officials who have served over a number of years,” Morris said in an interview after the meeting. “It’s new information to me.”
San Bernardino is the seat of San Bernardino County, which at more than 20,000 square miles is the largest, by area, in the contiguous U.S.
San Bernardino County and neighboring Riverside County form a metropolitan area that had the third-highest foreclosure rate in the U.S. in May, according to RealtyTrac Inc., an Irvine, California-based data provider. The area’s unemployment rate was 11.8 percent that month, compared with 8.2 percent nationwide, according to U.S. Labor Department data.
The city and its agencies have $243 million of debt, including $48.6 million of taxable pension-obligation bonds, according to financial statements. Per-person debt was $1,506, or 5.4 percent of personal income.
“Cities are running out of options,” Michael Sweet, a partner specializing in bankruptcy at the San Francisco office of law firm Fox Rothschild LLP, said yesterday in a telephone interview. “As they see pension contribution obligations and retiree health-care costs going through the roof, revenue is at best stable if not declining.”