Are Municipal Bankruptcies at the End of the Longest Stretch in U.S. History?

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eBlog, 1/29/17

Good Morning! In this a.m.’s eBlog, we consider an extraordinary ending to mayhap the most significant string of chapter 9 municipal bankruptcies in American history, with U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury’ milestone decision that she will issue a written confirmation order to confirm San Bernardino’s plan of debt adjustment. When San Bernardino emerges from the longest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, it will mean that for the first time since the Great Recession, no municipality is in bankruptcy—albeit, in the case of East Cleveland, Ohio, the absence appears to be more a matter of incompetency than governance.   

The End of the Longest Road. Nearly four and a half years after filing for what has become the longest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, the California municipality of San Bernardino is ready to celebrate its likely last appearance before U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury, after Judge Jury on Friday agreed to issue a written confirmation order consistent with the fifty page proposal the city’s attorneys had submitted, noting: “The last words I will say is congratulations to the city…I look forward to the order and I look forward to the city having a prosperous future.” Expectations are that San Bernardino will remain in its current bankruptcy status for about two more months, as Judge Jury deals with a smattering of creditors who have said they intend to appeal her decision. One such creditor, as we have previously noted, is a citizen of the city who alleged he had been beaten by San Bernardino police officers six years ago—a beating in which he testified he had incurred brain damage; ergo he is appealing that he should be entitled to more than the one percent of the amount a jury had awarded—and should also be allowed to be to sue the officers individually, with his attorney having testified before the court that, notwithstanding San Bernardino’s municipal bankruptcy, an appellate court, in the City of Vallejo’s chapter 9 bankruptcy, had ruled that individual police officers should be held liable for excessive force. However, Judge Jury had ruled that, unlike Vallejo, San Bernardino’s plan of debt adjustment did include an injunction against claims against city employees, holding that San Bernardino “has demonstrated, with unrefuted evidence, that the city does not have the financial resources to pay the holders of litigation claims except pursuant to the terms of the plan…There certainly are no legal bases or equitable grounds for treating the four objectors any differently than all of the other holders of litigation claims.” Judge Jury did not advise the city when she would sign the confirmation order—a date which will start the two-week clock for any appeals—but not interfere with the projected official exit from the nation’s longest ever municipal bankruptcy projected for April.

In the wake of the momentous day, Mayor Carey Davis said: “The bankruptcy has been a major focus, and now we can work more on our other goals.” That is, the city’s plan of debt adjustment could best be likened to a municipal fiscal blueprint demonstrating both for the federal bankruptcy court, but also for the city’s citizens as well as credit rating agencies: a detailed 20-year recipe and guidance with regard to the city’s blueprint for reinvesting in police and infrastructure in a future of constrained fiscal options—a blueprint that emerged from a strategic plan developed via a series of meetings two years ago, where, Mayor Davis noted, leaders “had to make one of the first goals fiscal stability, although we have begun to turn that corner already, with three years of balanced budgets, two years of surpluses.”

Nevertheless, as the records demonstrate, filing for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy is a politically and fiscally expensive undertaking: San Bernardino will end up expending at least $25 million for attorneys and consultants—albeit that will likely turn out to be a pretty smart investment: the city estimates the final, court-approved plan of debt adjustment will provide for some $350 million in savings—savings reflected in substantial concessions by retirees, unions, and payment obligations to the city’s municipal bondholders—or, as San Bernardino City Attorney Gary Saenz said outside the courtroom: “I’m very proud that all of our creditors recognize that, while the deals are tough, they’re best for all involved…Each of those decisions, we made with the people of San Bernardino in mind. They are the most important reason we did anything. This was all done so they can get the service levels they deserve.”

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