Today a judge ruled that the city of Stockton California is indeed bankrupt and that the city acted in good faith. Creditors asked the judge to void the bankruptcy, saying the city could raise taxes instead.
I have been watching this story for a while. Here is some background on the Stockton bankruptcy as reported by Arizona Central.
By outward appearances, Stockton, a city of nearly 300,000 on the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, seemed in the mid-2000s to be emerging from decades of struggle.
After the city’s population grew by nearly 20 percent between 2000 and 2005 and real estate tripled in value, home prices plummeted 40 percent the following year before bottoming out at 70 percent.
Within two years, Stockton had accumulated nearly $1 billion in debt on civic improvements, money owed to pay pension contributions and the most generous health care benefits in the state — coverage for life for all retirees plus a dependent no matter how long they had worked for the city.
By 2009, the city began slashing its budget to stay afloat. The police department lost 25 percent of its 441 sworn officers and the fire department was cut by 30 percent. City staff was cut by 40 percent. The city general fund budget, now $155 million, has been cut by $90 million over three years.
The impacts were felt everywhere. Wells Fargo bank seized three parking garages when the city defaulted on the $32 million in bonds that financed them. Bond holders also seized the $40 million downtown high rise that was to become City Hall.
Last summer, the city began negotiating with creditors, a requirement before entering bankruptcy. Ten employee unions agreed to temporary wage and benefits cuts.
Retired employees have also been asked to pick up a larger share of health care premiums, closing a $540 million retiree health care cost liability.
But the holders of the biggest share of the debt were the companies that in 2007 insured nearly $165 million in pension bond obligations to allow the city a lower interest rate and make them stable for investors. They were unable to negotiate a deal and want the city to avoid bankruptcy, which would likely allow Stockton to avoid repaying the debts in full.
City Acted in Good Faith
Today, Bloomberg reports a Judge Decided City Acted in Good Faith, Creditors Didn’t
The judge in a trial over whether the city of Stockton, California, can stay in bankruptcy said he found that the city negotiated in good faith with its creditors, and that the creditors didn’t.
Creditors, including Assured Guaranty Corp. and Franklin Resources Inc. (BEN) had argued that Stockton didn’t qualify for bankruptcy because the city isn’t truly insolvent, and that its leaders didn’t negotiate a potential settlement in good faith.
Negotiation is a “two way street,” said U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Christopher M. Klein in Sacramento, addressing creditors who he said didn’t negotiate in good faith. “You cannot negotiate with a stone wall.”
In the course of the hearing today, Klein has also said that the city’s witnesses were credible and that the city was “by any measure” insolvent when it filed for protection from creditors.
The city is slated to stop paying for retiree health care on June 30 as part of a spending plan the City Council approved in June, citing a $417 million unfunded liability. The benefit had allowed workers employed as little as a month to receive city-paid health coverage for life, for both the employee and his or her spouse, Bob Deis, the city’s manager said.
Stockton’s unemployment rate was 18.7 percent in January, almost twice the state jobless rate of 9.8 percent, according to the California Employment Development Department. The national unemployment level that month was 7.9 percent, according to U.S. Labor Department data.
This was a good ruling. The city is of course bankrupt and taxpayers should not have to pay for it more than they already have.
Once again the main problem was untenable salaries for public unions and city workers. The housing crash simply brought the crisis to a head sooner.
In addition to reduced healthcare benefits, the pension plan should be scrapped as well, but don’t expect city officials to cut their own throats no matter how much they deserve it.
Mike “Mish” Shedlock