Stockton is a two-time All America City recipient.
Just three years after its last All America City honor, Stockton led the nation in foreclosures.
Smirk all you want. While the awards are often full of more fluff than substance, Stockton today would qualify as a real All America City as opposed to the glamour contest version offered by the National Civic League. Unlike the version you preen for and send in an application with check attached, the All America City designation Stockton deserves today reflects a painful reality we all seem to want to ignore.
On Monday, Stockton got the OK from a judge to become the biggest American city ever to enter bankruptcy. A lot has been written postmortem about Stockton’s financial downfall. However, it is not a thorough autopsy.
You don’t have to be Warren Buffet to grasp the basics. Stockton leveraged too much debt to build fancy buildings betting on the good times rolling on indefinitely. It sounds eerily similar to what caused the foreclosure crisis - too many people buying too much home while assuming home equity could continue raining down from heaven. Then there is the issue of the equivalent of maxing out your credit cards and not being able to make minimum payments. Such is the case with Stockton’s public employee pension money trap.
It is overly simplistic to dismiss Stockton’s leaders as being too optimistic or defending them as being forced to compete with other employers for “decent help”. The same goes for painting public employees as greedy.
They are just symptoms of what ails Stockton - and much of the rest of America’s cities.
Stockton is a victim of post World War II development patterns as much as anything else.
Suburban sprawl defies economies of scale. The less people you have per square mile, the higher per cost of serving people. That goes for police protection, fire service, streets, sewer and water service, and even things such as school transportation.
Every city in California is currently having heart palpitations over future pension costs. Pundits state the obvious about human nature when they predict the odds are when better times return, people will fret less about the dangers and go on their merry way.
But that assumes pensions are the only financial time bomb ticking away.
On Monday, Lathrop leaders were told they need to spend $2.9 million a year to stay on top of maintenance for 83 centerline miles of roadway in that city. Lathrop typically spends $500,000 a year on street maintenance. They’re kicking it up to $1.5 million this year. It’s obvious that they can’t cover the tab to protect what they have. Lathrop is just like every other city in that regard.
Then there is the question of sewer and water lines, bridges, and other infrastructure. Everything ages and wears down. That means eventually it has to have long-term maintenance done and ultimately be replaced. And while many cities such as Manteca have well managed enterprise funds for sewer and water to anticipate a good share of those costs, most municipalities don’t.
A Bank of America white paper on urban sprawl inked back in the 1990s warned that development patterns were causing inner city decay and stretching infrastructure such as freeways to the point it would become ineffective cost wise to maintain them. The white paper advocated regeneration in urban cores and for future growth to go up instead of out.
The irony of the white paper is the fact the very bank that commissioned it got mega rich off of the post World War II development patterns that made suburbia king and encouraged long-range commuting along with bigger homes and bigger lots.
Snicker all you want about Stockton’s woes. While their treatment of the symptoms of financial ill health has much to be desired almost all of our cities have the same disease. We simply can’t afford to ultimately pay for the massive long-term deferred expenses we are creating whether it is through overgenerous pension funds or low density sprawl.
This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 209-249-3519.