The latest city to declare bankruptcy is San Bernardino, which has declared an emergency situation that will allow it to evade the negotiation period mandated by state law. The city simply doesn’t have the cash to keep operating. As Bloomberg reported, “San Bernardino and its agencies have more than $220 million of debt, including $48.6 million of taxable pension-obligation bonds, according to financial statements.” Pension-obligation bonds are used by cities to pay ongoing pension expenses, yet San Bernardino’s problems show that a city cannot borrow its way out of debt.
Other big cities, including Los Angeles, are talking more openly about the bankruptcy option. Not long ago critics who mentioned the B-word were considered Chicken Littles.
The latest talking point is that these cities couldn’t control what happened to them. The Riverside Press-Enterprisereported: “The city of San Bernardino’s financial woes are a directly correlation to a torrent of foreclosures in the Inland area of Southern California, the national foreclosure tracking firm RealtyTrac said Thursday. ‘Property taxes plunged in San Bernardino because of an avalanche of foreclosure activity during the recent housing bust,’ said RealtyTrac vice president Daren Blomquist.”
There’s no doubt San Bernardino and Stockton—Ground Zero for the housing crisis—suffered from the problem described above. But what did those cities do with the rapid increase in property tax revenues during the price run-up? We know—they squandered it on increased compensation for government employees, on redevelopment projects and other questionable spending deals. They squandered the money when it came flowing in, now depict themselves as victims of circumstance when the funds dried up.
The real culprit is foolish decision making. Stockton, for instance, refused to take advantage of an exemption in prevailing wage laws—something that could have saved it money but would have angered the powerful unions.