Friday, May 16, 2008

Jefferson County and City of Vallejo Consider Chapter 9 Municipal Bankruptcy

It was reported this week that Jefferson County, Alabama reached a two week extension with its Wall Street bankers to avoid a default on its outstanding debt of $4.6 billion. Jefferson County is reported to be one of the most indebted municipalities in the United States due to its expensive overhaul of its sewage system. It has been reported that the county could face chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy.

Earlier this month it was reported that the City Council of Vallejo California voted to file for chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy due to unaffordable labor contracts and unfunded pension liabilities. Its reported that the Chapter 9 bankruptcy filing is expected any day. Vallejo was once a prosperous city of 117,000 and is facing police, fire and staffing costs in excess its ability to pay. Today's Daily Business Review reports that the case has become a national bellwether [sic] for financially shaky local governments considering the pitfalls of filing Chapter er9 municipal bankruptcy."

The city reportedly faces a $16 million deficit for the upcoming fiscal year due to a decrease in tax revenues as property values have fallen. Vallejo has a population of 117,000 people.

An example of a recent municipal chapter 9 bankruptcy case was that filed in December, 2001 by the City of Desert Hot Springs California in the Bankruptcy Court of the Central District of California. The city of about 17,000 people was $8 million in debt including $6 million owed on a Fair Housing Act lawsuit. Another notable municipal bankruptcy was that of Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1991. The largest municipal bankruptcy filed to date was that of Orange County, California which filed for chapter 9 bankruptcy in 1994. In 1975 New York City teetered on the edge of filed for bankruptcy and appealed to the federal government for a bailout. In the end, New York City with assistance from Washington, including the creation of the Municipal Assistance Corporation, was able to avoid bankruptcy.

The Daily Business Review also reports that "San Diego, the nation's eight largest city, has been on the brink of a financial abyss for several years."

The first municipal bankruptcy legislation was enacted in 1934 during the Great Depression. A revised Municipal Bankruptcy Act was enacted in 1937 which has been amended several times. Under chapter 9 bankruptcy, the municipality is protected from its creditor while it negotiates a plan to adjust its debts. There is no provision in chapter 9 for the liquidation of the assets of a municipality.

A "municipality" that may file for relief under chapter 9 is defined in the bankruptcy code as a "political subdivision or public agency or instrumentality of a State." This definition is broad enough to include cities, counties, townships, school districts, public improvement districts, bridge authorities, highway authorities, and gas authorities. In order to be eligible to file for chapter 9 the municipality must be "insolvent" as defined in the bankruptcy code. An interesting distinction in chapter 9 is that the clerk of the court does not assign the case to a particular judge. Instead the chief judge of the circuit's court of appeals designates the bankruptcy judge to conduct the case. The Bankruptcy Code allows objections to the chapter 9 petition and the court may dismiss the petition if it determines it was not filed in good faith.

The bankruptcy court's powers over the operations and revenue of the municipality are limited under the bankruptcy code. These restrictions avoid the possibility that the court may substitute its control over the governmental affairs for that of the elected officials.
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