The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Blue Storm Ravages California City

California’s cities have been going bankrupt left and right over the past few years. But what is it actually like to live in a bankrupt city? A new New York Times profile of post-bankruptcy San Bernardino paints the picture, and it isn’t a pretty one: plummeting home prices, dead animals left to rot in the streets, and, most troublingly, gang violence on the rise again as the police force trims down to a skeleton crew:

In San Bernardino, dozens of officers have been laid off since the bankruptcy filing, leaving the police force with 264 officers, down from 350 in 2009. Those who remain call in sick more often, said the police chief, Robert Handy. Emergency response times are up. Nonemergency calls often get no response.

At the same time, as part of a plan to reduce the state prison population, nearly 4,000 criminals who would once have been sent to state prison have been put in the custody of San Bernardino County law enforcement authorities. Some have been released, putting more low-level criminals back on the streets of San Bernardino, Chief Hardy said, and adding to the challenges already faced by the police.

“All of our crime is up, and the city has a very high crime rate per capita anyway,” Chief Handy said. “I can’t police the city with much less than this. We’re dangerously close as it is.”

As lawyers wrangle in court over San Bernardino’s plan to cut $26 million from its budget and defer some of its pension payments, city officials say there is little more they can do to turn back the rising tide of violence.

This is what a blue death spiral looks like. Years and years of unsustainable pension promises, profligate spending and poor fiscal leadership slowly add up until the money runs out and there’s nothing left to pay for the services that keep the city running. Bankruptcy can help get a city’s finances back on track, but it’s extremely difficult to run a city on a shoestring budget, as San Bernardino is now learning.

It is truly unfortunate that the good citizens of San Bernardino are caught up in this mess. In the meantime, this should serve as a warning to the rest of us.

Published on January 15, 2013 6:02 pm