Public Policy Forum Blog

Is bankruptcy really an option?

The politicization of a recent disclosure that a leading civic organization has discussed potential bankruptcy for Milwaukee County is not surprising. But putting aside the politics, shouldn't we be asking whether, from a government finance perspective, bankruptcy is a realistic or viable option for the county?

A recent article on the Governing website examined the question of whether we're likely to see a surge in government bankruptcies nationally. It found the answer, generally speaking, to be "no." The article features excerpts from an interview with Robert A. Kurtter, a senior public finance official from Moody's credit rating agency. Among the points in the article that are relevant to Milwaukee County's situation:

  • Local governments across the country clearly are being squeezed and facing agonizing decisions regarding whether to cut services, raise taxes, or both. Nevertheless, the specter of bankruptcy typically is tossed around as a rhetorical tool, as opposed to a legal one. As Kurtter puts it, "There may be talk about governments being bankrupt and insolvent when what is meant is 'We don't want to raise taxes and don't want to spend so we have to cut.'"
  • Municipal bankruptcies typically occur when governments no longer can afford payments on their debt. Kurtter expects defaults at a higher rate than after previous recessions, but they should continue to be "rare and idiosyncratic," and likely will be linked to huge capital projects (like incinerators or steam plants) that "went bad."
  • When the city of Vallejo, California, resorted to bankruptcy three years ago to seek relief from unaffordable union contracts, many thought it would set off a wave of similar filings. That hasn't happened, according to Kurtter, because "municipal bankruptcy is expensive, it's time consuming and the outcome is not at all clear...governments understand they need to figure out how to balance budgets and deliver essential public services now."

The Public Policy Forum has not minced words in our assessment of Milwaukee County's financial situation. In a July report, we cited the county's own projection of a $100 million structural deficit by 2014 and called its long-term budget prognosis "alarming." And, in a March 2009 report, we stated that "while the county enjoys cash solvency and a reasonable debt service level, annual reductions have not achieved financial equilibrium, and the county's fiscal condition remains highly unstable."

Still, we have suggested that despite its deep structural imbalance, the county's fiscal woes stem mostly from a lack of political consensus on how to plan for and manage its financial challenges. That reality - combined with the county's continued strong capital debt management, its huge inventory of physical assets, the fact that it is tens of millions of dollars below its state-imposed property tax levy cap, and the uncertainties regarding bankruptcy's legality and its impacts on critical county services - makes it difficult to imagine a bankruptcy declaration any time soon.

Rob Henken