America’s swelling ranks of fallen municipal borrowers have been blamed in the past year on ‘what-were-they-thinking’ causes, be it a Taj Mahal sewer system in Alabama or an overpriced trash incinerator in Pennsylvania’s capital city of Harrisburg.
But the next series of major cities and counties in danger of defaulting on their debt can hardly point to one single decision for their malaise. Whether it be Detroit, Miami or Providence, Rhode Island, their problems have a lot more to do with financial policies that put them on course to live well beyond their means.
Municipal defaults have shot up since 2007 and are on pace for another high year in 2012, according to Richard Lehmann, publisher of the Distressed Securities Newsletter.
Many failures will be due to local politicians’ willingness to give unionized local government workers lucrative pensions and health care benefits when times were good. For others, the housing bust was enough to destroy their real estate tax base. They almost all share the failure to prepare for a rainy day.
Now, belt tightening by state and federal governments is adding to the pain – as contributions to governments at city and county levels get squeezed. Many of the places in the worst condition are in the Northeast, Midwest, California and Florida.