Sometime this week, the city of Stockton, California will file for bankruptcy. I’m sure the people of Stockton — all 300,000 of them — are a bit bewildered by their current grim reality.
Not too long ago, Stockton was on the move. It built a new marina and hotel and promenade to attract tourists. It built vast tracts of housing in an effort to lure bargain-hunting workers from the Bay Area. It offered generous pay and benefits to its workers, including allowing them to retire at age 55.
Then the crash came. The vast tracts of housing sit largely vacant, and Stockton has the second-highest foreclosure rate in the country. The hoped-for boom in tourism and convention traffic never materialized. Stockton boasts the second-highest rate of violent crime in California and a 17.5 percent unemployment rate. The city has been cutting payroll for years, including a 25 percent cut in the police force and a 30 percent cut in the fire department payroll. Public employee pay and benefits have been reduced. Yet still the city faces a $26 million budget deficit and $417 million in liability for retirees’ health care. When mediation talks with public employee unions and creditors failed, bankruptcy became the only option.
If I lived in Stockton I’d have one question: how did city government fail so colossally? Stockton looks like one of those cities where bones were thrown to everyone: big dream city projects for the pro-development crowd, big pay and health care benefits and pensions for the public employee unions, big promises of progress and better days ahead for voters, and pats on the back and big salaries for city leaders. Now that it has turned to ashes, city residents are left in a crime-ridden, devastated city that has to do untenable things like totally eliminating healthcare benefits for city retirees.
I guess, therefore, I’d have a second question: where is the accountability for the city leaders who allowed the city to stroll, dream-like, into this predicament?