San Bernardino, California, Weighs Chapter 9 Bankruptcy

San Bernardino may become the third California city in two weeks to file for municipal bankruptcy protection, as it struggles with declining tax revenue, growing employee costs and ill-timed public-works projects.

The City Council is to consider authorizing the city attorney to file a Chapter 9 petition at a meeting late today, said Gwendolyn Waters, a spokeswoman. A decision was possible tonight, though unlikely, she said.

“It is an option, but I don’t know if they are ready to make that decision yet,” Waters said in a telephone interview.

A San Bernardino bankruptcy would follow Stockton, a community of 292,000 east of San Francisco, which on June 28 became the biggest U.S. city to file for bankruptcy. Mammoth Lakes, a mountain resort of 8,200, filed for protection from creditors on July 3 saying it can’t afford to pay a $43 million judgment, more than twice its general-fund spending for the year.

San Bernardino, a city of 209,000 east of Los Angeles, faces a $45 million deficit this fiscal year, according to a June 26 budget analysis posted on its website. The city has declared fiscal emergencies, negotiated for concessions from employees and reduced its workforce by 20 percent in four years, according to the report.

The city is facing insolvency because of accounting errors, deficit spending, pension and debt costs, and lack of revenue growth, according to the report.

Few Options

“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 today 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.”

San Bernardino is the seat of San Bernardino County, which at more than 20,000 square miles, is the largest county by area in the contiguous U.S.

San Bernardino County and neighboring Riverside County forms 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’s reserves and discretionary funds have been depleted, and the city faces insolvency,” San Bernardino Interim City Manager Andrea Travis-Miller and Finance Director Jason Simpson wrote in a June 26 memo to the council. “Simply put, the city must now take substantial action to reduce its spending and increase revenues.”

According to its financial statements, the city and its agencies held $243 million of outstanding debt, including $48.6 million of taxable pension-obligation bonds outstanding. The city’s debt per person was $1,506 or $5.37 percent of personal income. San Bernardino had $200 million of outstanding general-obligation bonds, according to the statement.

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