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Municipal Bankruptcies - When Local Governments Go Belly-Up


Los Angeles Litigation AttorneyEnvironmental Law & Civil Litigation AttorneyJune 6, 2012
by Stephen T. Holzer

Los Angeles Environmental Attorney

When an individual opts to declare bankruptcy, he or she generally qualifies for either Chapter 7 Bankruptcy, in which the individual's property is sold to pay some, or all of the debts; or Chapter 13 Bankruptcy, in which options for payment of these debts are offered over a fixed period of time.

Creditors may be notified and may contest the process, as they want to recover as much of the loan and interest as possible.

It's much more complex for local governments under Chapter 9 of the Bankruptcy Code because:

  1. Municipal debts are usually much larger.
  2. Local government employees don't want to have their contracts abolished or reduced. They stand to lose their benefits, pensions and other compensation when a municipality files bankruptcy.
  3. Bonds and other means of financing municipal projects completely complicate the process.

State Assemblyman Bob Wieckowsky attempted to alleviate some of the confusion for municipalities, their employees and their creditors by introducing a bill that became law this year. In a compromise between the unions and the governments, AB 506 requires cities, towns, counties and villages to engage in mediation with creditors in an attempt to stave off bankruptcy proceedings.

Though only enacted several months ago, the Assemblyman wants to amend the law to broaden the powers of the mediators.

The new bill, AB 1692, will subject local governments to an evaluation, or force them to declare a state of fiscal emergency before they can declare bankruptcy. Several state organizations such as the California Professional Firefighters, the California Labor Federation and the California Nurses Association back this new bill.

Many local government officials oppose AB 1692 though, citing as a reason that the process gives the mediators too much power and allows more time for financial resources to be drained.

The new bill limits a neutral evaluation to 60 days following the appointment of the evaluator, unless participating interests elect to extend the process by another 90 days (or longer if the parties agree).

Insolvent Cities – A Look at Stockton, Mammoth Lakes and Vallejo

The gold rush city of Stockton currently stands to be the most populous in America to declare bankruptcy. The municipality projects a deficit of $20-38 million over the next fiscal year, due partly to overgenerous pension packages for city employees, an over-aggressive development plan, and the nosedive of the real estate market in the current recession.

The parties involved in the bankruptcy proceedings just recently voted to extend the mediation period another 30 days, giving offices until June 27th to come to an agreement with creditors.

Mammoth Lakes has a different reason for facing Chapter 9 bankruptcy proceedings: A legal judgment of $43 million stemming from a lawsuit first brought six years ago against the town by a developer. The plaintiff refuses to participate in the mediation process.

Before the Stockton financial crisis, and even before ABs 1692 and 506, Vallejo was one of the first and largest cities to go bankrupt.

Vallejo did so in the spring of 2008, and the move gave the city protection from creditors, as well as time to renegotiate employee contracts and find new sources of revenue, according to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle. Last November, the city came out of bankruptcy status, released from the stigma by a federal judge.

The Vallejo's City Manager says bankruptcy should be a last resort option. Whether or not ABs 506 and 1692 provide other means of deliverance, only time will tell.

Stephen T. Holzer is a business litigation attorney and Chair of our Environmental  Law Practice Group. Contact him via e-mail:

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