Jefferson County, AL has filed for bankruptcy protection, joining the ranks of Vallejo, CA; Central Falls, RI; Boise, ID; and Harrisburg, PA. In this case, the debt that the county used to finance a new sewer system is the main driver of insolvency. The county currently owes about $4.15 billion on the sewer system.
The problems were years in the making.
Its debt ballooned after a federally mandated sewer project was beset with corruption, court rulings that didn’t go its way and rising interest rates when global markets struggled.
Since 2008, Jefferson County tried to save itself the cost and embarrassment of filing for bankruptcy. But after three years, commissioners voted 4-1 to bring the issue to an end.
“Jefferson County has, in effect, been in bankruptcy for three years,” said Commissioner Jimmie Stephens, who made the motion to file for protection in federal bankruptcy court in northern Alabama.
While the last few years have seen a few cases of municipalities filing for Chapter 9, Jefferson County’s case represents by far the largest. Unlike other recent bankruptcies that were a result of both poor financial management and the economic downturn, Jefferson County’s problems were in part a result of corrupt public officials. Twenty-two people have been convicted for illegally refinancing the sewer bonds to benefit local and Wall Street financiers. Residents in Alabama’s largest county will likely face higher sewer rates as a result.
But the biggest problem for residents when municipalities file for bankruptcy protection is the resulting policy uncertainty. Businesses are typically reluctant, with good reason, to move to a bankrupt municipality. The shadow of Chapter 9 means that for years, residents and businesses will be paying higher taxes in exchange for fewer services because of the remaining debt burden. This will put the county and even the state in a poor competitive standing for new jobs.
In 1994, Orange County, CA, filed for Chapter 9 protection on $1.7 billion in debt, and residents there are still paying taxes toward that debt today. In the short term, Jefferson County will face painful and immediate cuts. The Birmingham Business Journal spoke with Commissioner Jimmie Stephens on what the future holds for the county:
“We’re looking at all of these services that are not mandated by the constitution and, from there, we will begin the reductions and take it as far as we need to, keeping in mind the services that the citizens need,” he said.