On Tuesday, San Bernardino became the third California city to file for bankruptcy protection in less than a month. A city of 210,000, San Bernardino follows Stockton (300,000), which filed on June 28. They are joined by the much smaller Mammoth Lakes.
Prior to this summer, no city of over 200,000 population had ever filed for bankruptcy, according to AP reports.
"The city's fiscal crisis has been years in the making, compounded by the nation's crushing recession and exacerbated by escalating pension costs, lucrative labor agreements, Sacramento's raid on redevelopment funds and a city reserve that is tapped out," the Los Angeles Times reported.
"The relationship between the people and their money in California is such that you can pluck almost any city at random and enter a crisis," wrote Michael Lewis, the author of Moneyball, in a must-read Vanity Fair article last November.
"San Jose has the highest per capita income of any city in the United States, after New York. It has the highest credit rating of any city in California with a population over 250,000. It is one of the few cities in America with a triple-A rating from Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s, but only because its bondholders have the power to compel the city to levy a tax on property owners to pay off the bonds. The city itself is not all that far from being bankrupt," Lewis noted.
The core problem, Lewis argued, is that California and its cities owe more in public pensions than they can afford to pay.
When Stockton filed, the Manhattan Institutes's Ben Boychuck predicted in the New York Post that more would follow.
Boychuck cited Bob Deis, Stockton's new city manager, who blamed profligate spending commitments: “Stockton overcommitted to long-term obligations that even under the best of times the city could not afford.”
"Today," Boychuck concluded, "Stockton strains under $700 million in bond debt the city borrowed to finance a sports arena, a fancy new waterfront — and to shore up pensions and benefits for retired city workers."
Ed Morrissey, writing at Hot Air, also sees the municipal problems as symptoms of a deeper state-wide crisis of management.
"Decades of financial mismanagement has led the Golden State to the brink of financial collapse — and not just the cities," Morrissey wrote. "The state has run annual budget deficits for years that run in the $15-25 billion range; their latest is an $18 billion gap. At the same time, the California Senate just approved the construction of a completely unnecessary high-speed rail line between two points in California where no one wants to go, as a first step to building a full line between San Francisco and Los Angeles that will carry passengers at a rate roughly two and a half times slower than air travel. The cost? $100 billion, at the moment. Furthermore, it will run on electricity, which California already doesn’t produce in enough quantity to meet its current needs."
Eric Schulzke writes on national politics for the Deseret News. He can be contacted at [email protected].