Human & Fiscal Disruption and Municipal Bankruptcy

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December 11, 2015. Share on Twitter

Human & Fiscal Disruption and Municipal Bankruptcy. Even as the City of San Bernardino is trying not just to get back to normalcy and resume efforts to finalize its proposed plan of debt adjustment to submit to U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury in the wake of last week’s terrorist attack, the aftershocks of the event—in the form of bomb threats—have surged. The calls are exacting a fiscal toll: Hours after the rampage which left 21 dead and 14 wounded, and even as some of those victims were being treated, a code yellow bomb threat was called in to the Loma Linda University Medical Center, according to a hospital spokeswoman. Even though fire and police officials have been unable to find any connection between the threats from multiple sources, and all the threats had been cleared without any weapons found; the threats themselves are imposing not just unanticipated costs, but also fiscal instability and erosion: the mere existence of the threats can hardly, after all, serve to enhance the city’s tax base or encourage either business or residential investment—but they do exact a fiscal and emotional toll, even if assessing the fiscal toll is intangible.

Rather, as Jim Buermann, president of the Police Foundation, notes, the threats themselves are dangerous — and despicable: “You can’t evacuate patients in ICU or critically injured patients unless you truly believe something will happen, because you could be endangering them. They literally could be causing someone to die…Especially in this time when so many people are on edge. This has had a very traumatic impact on the Inland Empire.” The most recent example came Wednesday with a hoax when one student called another student at Carter High School in Rialto, leading Rialto Unified School District officials to put the school on lockdown for an hour—just two days after the school had been had been searched in the wake of finding multiple photos of the high school on the cell phone of Syed Farook, the health inspector responsible for most of the district’s schools until he and his wife Tashfeen Malik killed 14 people and wounded 21 others, according to investigators—and just prior to the arrest by San Bernardino Sheriff’s deputies of another person on suspicion of placing bomb threats to three separate places — Loma Linda University Medical Center, Grand Terrace High School, and a San Bernardino apartment complex, according to the department. The San Bernardino City Unified School District is investigating a set of messages falsely claiming on Snapchat and Instagram that all schools in San Bernardino and Redlands would be closed. This is a city in municipal bankruptcy—and now on the precipice of fear.

While Mr. Buermann told the San Bernardino Sun that these kinds of threats are not necessarily common in the wake of a traumatic event, they can make an adverse event more likely: “The shooting, pursuit, that whole thing, that sets people on edge…And sometimes it’s enough to nudge someone who’s a very unreasonable human being toward doing something that’s just irrational or criminally mischievous to see if I can add to the angst that people have…Or, in the worst case scenario, it’s someone trying to test responses.” San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon warned, in a public statement: “Citizens should be wary of possible hoax messages and follow verified law enforcement social media accounts and press releases. Our primary responsibility is to make sure our communities are safe and we are committed to continue to ensure that.”

Last week’s mass shooting in San Bernardino was, reportedly, planned up to a year in advance—that is, almost simultaneously with the city’s planning of its plan of debt adjustment to submit to U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury. Put another way, there have been parallel, meticulous plans: one to devastate a municipality and maim its people, and one to give it a sustainable future. The attack was not an event which could have been anticipated—much less incorporated into the city’s plan of debt adjustment to submit to Judge Jury. It raises the question with regard to mass tragedies and their impact on municipal coffers: after all, San Bernardino could hardly afford such devastation and loss of lives in the midst of the longest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history: are other municipalities prepared for comparable tragic eventualities?

The Precipitous to Recovery. Matthew Dolan, the fine Detroit Press columnist, this morning marked Detroit’s “one year of freedom today from the nation’s largest bankruptcy,” noting, nevertheless, that not every Motor City resident is necessarily overjoyed. He acknowledged that while Detroit is financially solvent, that it has thousands of new streetlights and its world class Detroit Institute of Art, and a balanced budget; yet it still “is struggling to find new solutions to old problems: endemic blight, vacant land, high crime, struggling schools, and a looming pension bill that city leaders are struggling to pay off.” Or, as he quotes the godfather of municipal bankruptcy, Jim Spiotto: “[I]t would be shortsighted to say that it is already recovered.” Indeed, Mr. Dolan noted that on Wednesday night at a community event at Wayne State University featuring the architects of Detroit’s bankruptcy plan of debt adjustment, organizers were forced to halt the event after about an hour—and the evening’s scheduled, featured speaker, Mayor Mike Duggan, never even reached the stage.

The event, sponsored by the Detroit Journalism Cooperative and Detroit Public Television had invited Mayor Duggan, Gov. Rick Snyder, and retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, who oversaw the court case, to provide their insights and assessments of the city’s progress; however, the event was brought to an early close after interruptions by some upset members of the crowd of more than 200 who questioned whether the nation’s largest ever municipal bankruptcy had been legitimate and successful—protests which apparently reached their zenith after Gov. Snyder began speaking about his appointment of Detroit’s emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, and defended the city’s entrance and exit from chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy as a last resort but a necessary one, telling the audience: “We eventually got to bankruptcy, but that was after three years” of efforts to fix the city’s balance sheet outside of court.

The session was brought to its untimely end when the celebrated lead rhythm guitar player of the ever judicious Indubitable Equivalents, retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, could no longer be heard by audience members—with the end coming after he expressed some of his concerns about Detroit’s looming public pension liabilities and its near bankrupt public school system. Mr. Spiotto, unsurprisingly, provided a broader perspective—especially in light of the near decade-long efforts we joined in nearly three decades ago to get the current version of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy signed into law by former President Ronald Reagan: he noted that since then, there have been 295 Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy filings, most of which involved municipal utilities and special tax districts: only 54 involved cities, counties, towns, or villages—and most of those ended up having their bids rejected by the court or came to an alternate solution outside of a bankruptcy judge’s approved plan of debt adjustment. Mr. Spiotto told the audience: “The real test is going to be five or ten years from now,” when, he said, the key issues will involve whether the city has under control the spiraling costs and dwindling tax revenue that forced its march into bankruptcy court.

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