It Begins: Harrisburg Files For Bankruptcy Protection
We are confident the spinmasters will spin the first major domino in the muni crisis as bullish: after all it "removes uncertainty." Bloomberg reports that "The city of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, facing a state takeover of its finances, filed for bankruptcy protection following a vote by the City Council, according to a lawyer for the council.Mark D. Schwartz, a Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania-based lawyer and a former public finance banker for Prudential Financial Inc., said he filed the documents by fax to a federal bankruptcy court last night. The filing couldn’t be confirmed with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Harrisburg.The state capital of 49,500 faces a debt burden five times its general-fund budget because of an overhaul and expansion of a trash-to-energy incinerator that doesn’t generate enough revenue. “This was a last resort,’’ Schwartz said in an interview after the council voted 4-3 to seek bankruptcy protection. “They’re at their wits’ end.’’While bankruptcy would mean the loss of state aid under a law passed in June, it would be preferable to a proposed recovery plan, said Councilwoman Susan Brown-Wilson." Well, at least Jefferson County will not have the dubious legacy of being the first muni to push everyone else over. And now that the precedent has been set (yes, Virginia, it can be done) watch as tens if not hundreds of other cash-strapped towns, cities, localities and other entities follow suit promptly to quite promptly.
“We’re not incompetent,” Brown-Wilson said. “We’re just not going to let you run us over with the train anymore,” she said, referring to state officials.
Jason Hess, the acting city attorney, told the council members before the vote that they didn’t follow procedure and their action wouldn’t be binding. The members went ahead anyway.
Preparing for bankruptcy is going to mire the city in litigation it can’t afford, said Councilwoman Patty Kim, who voted against it.
“The problem still exists that we still don’t have money, and we still haven’t moved one foot forward,” Kim said.
Harrisburg, the seat of Dauphin County, needs $310 million to make bond payments, restructure debt and repay the county and insurer Assured Guaranty Municipal Corp., which made payments the city skipped on the waste-to-energy facility. Schwartz said he expects Assured Guaranty will reduce the value of its debt.
“Why should they be first in line?” he said.
In an opinion article published yesterday in a local newspaper, the Patriot-News, the four council members who voted for bankruptcy said Assured Guaranty and bondholders should forgive at least $100 million of the debt.
They also said there should be a countywide sales tax of 1 percent to help pay off the debt. Schwartz, in the interview, said that could forestall asset sales.
As for the historic details of what is the biggest muni bankruptcy in a long time...
In a copy of the Chapter 9 petition provided by Schwartz, the city lists both assets and debt of $100 million to $500 million. According to the copy, the city has 49 or fewer creditors.
The Pennsylvania Senate is scheduled to take up legislation next week that would make Harrisburg the first municipality in the state to be placed in receivership.
The council in July and August rejected fiscal rescue blueprints from consultants hired by the state and Mayor Linda Thompson, triggering the legislative response.
The bill would let Republican Governor Tom Corbett declare a fiscal emergency in Harrisburg and name a receiver who would develop a recovery plan. The manager would be able to sell assets, hire advisers and suspend the authority of elected officials who interfere. Unlike in Michigan, the receiver wouldn’t be able to change union contracts.
And now, spin time.