Reuters has published a very interesting analysis of the economic woes facing the city of San Bernadino in California. Their slow but steady progression over the years might serve as a model for what's happened in many other parts of the United States as well. Here's an excerpt.
When this sun-drenched exurb east of Los Angeles filed for bankruptcy protection in August, the city attorney suggested fraudulent accounting was the root of the problem.
The mayor blamed a dysfunctional city council and greedy police and fire unions. The unions blamed the mayor. Even now, there is little agreement on how the city got into this crisis or how it can extricate itself.
"It's total political chaos," said John Husing, a former San Bernardino resident and regional economist. "There is no solution. They'll never fix anything."
Yet on close examination, the city's decades-long journey from prosperous, middle-class community to bankrupt, crime-ridden, foreclosure-blighted basket case is straightforward — and alarmingly similar to the path traveled by many municipalities around America's largest state. San Bernardino succumbed to a vicious circle of self-interests among city workers, local politicians and state pension overseers.
Little by little, over many years, the salaries and retirement benefits of San Bernardino's city workers — and especially its police and firemen — grew richer and richer, even as the city lost its major employers and gradually got poorer and poorer.
. . .
No single deal or decision involving benefits and wages over the years killed the city. But cumulatively, they built a pension-fueled financial time-bomb that finally exploded.
. . .
And while California has the biggest pension debt in the United States in dollar terms, it's not the worst off. Illinois and Kentucky plans are battling for the dubious distinction of having the lowest ratio of assets to liabilities, according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.
The chronic mismanagement in San Bernardino, though, is a common feature of local government in California and around the United States. Much power over municipal finance lies in the hands of those with the most at stake — city employees, elected officials and others who depend directly on government for their livelihood. And California is moving to put even more responsibility and funds, not less, in their hands.
There's much more at the link. Recommended reading.