Exuberance and Municipal Bankruptcy: A Case Study of San Bernardino, Stockton and Vallejo, CA
- Tracy Gordon, Urban Institute Tax Policy Center
- Larry A. Rosenthal, Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley
- Michael Lens, UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs
- Paavo Monkkonen, UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs
- Goldman School of Public Policy Working Paper (May 2017)
A series of municipal bankruptcies across the United States during and after the financial crisis of 2007-2008 revealed the need for a better understanding of the many factors that shape cities’ fiscal operating environments and solvency conditions. The larger project this study is part of focuses on the role of real estate price changes in the spending and revenues of local governments, examining specifically the issue of irrational exuberance at city hall. We know that property value changes can influence revenue expectations, and ask whether perceptions about future growth conditions may increase propensity to commit to spending revenue that might not materialize. One understudied aspect of this hypothesis is the way in which local governments of various structures process information about local real estate market conditions and revenue expectations. In work completed recently, we analyzed how city councils and fiscal managers learn about real estate market conditions. We found that cities see themselves as budgeting conservatively, and that the housing boom and bust was secondary to declines in sales tax and other revenues during the recession. In this paper, we extend the inquiry to cover the bankruptcies of San Bernardino, Vallejo, and Stockton, CA. We explore these cases relying upon contemporaneous news reports and commentaries, as well as background sources providing municipal history. While exuberance may set the stage for the very extreme policy choice to seek Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection, we find that the perceptions of local administrators and lawmakers relative to economic growth and revenue expectations alone were likely not sufficient to predict, or explain, these cases. Instead, a number of political, budgetary, and financial factors must coincide in order to place leaders and managers into the kind of predicaments which place bankruptcy on the table as a rational, if unappetizing, option.