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Experts: More Local Cities Will Be Forced into Bankruptcy

By Dan Weil   |   Monday, 17 May 2010 08:29 AM

Harrisburg, Pa., officials have raised the idea of declaring bankruptcy, and don’t be surprised if other financially strapped cities begin to contemplate the same idea.

Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s capital, has missed $6 million in debt payments since Jan. 1.

Its City Council brought in experts to explain the ramifications of bankruptcy at a recent meeting.

“There is no good option,” said Dan Miller, Harrisburg city controller, told the council’s administration committee, the Financial Times reports.

A key issue for Harrisburg is $68 million in debt-service payments due this year for a waste-to-energy incinerator project.

Cities haven’t filed for bankruptcy much in the past.

The biggest example took place in 1994, when Orange County, Cal. went under. More recently, Vallejo, Calif., filed for bankruptcy two years ago.

With their crushing debt woes, thanks to extravagant spending projects and pension obligations, more municipalities may end up going that route.

“The more bankruptcy is publicly discussed as an option for financial relief, the more its tarnish wears off, increasing the likelihood of its actual use,” Fitch Ratings warned in a report earlier this year.

Rick Bookstaber, a senior adviser to the Securities & Exchange Commission, is worried.

“Once a few municipalities default, there is a risk of a widespread cascade in defaults,” he wrote on his personal website.

“(That’s) because the opprobrium will be lessened, all the more so if the defaults are spurred along by a taxpayer revolt — democracy at work.”

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Harrisburg, Pa., officials have raised the idea of declaring bankruptcy, and don t be surprised if other financially strapped cities begin to contemplate the same idea. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania s capital, has missed $6 million in debt payments since Jan. 1. Its City...
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