Robert Snell et al., Detroit News, July 18, 2013
The city of Detroit filed the largest municipal bankruptcy case in U.S. history Thursday afternoon, culminating a decades-long slide that transformed the nation’s iconic industrial town into a model of urban decline crippled by population loss, a dwindling tax base and financial problems.
The 16-page petition was filed in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Detroit.
Under state law, [Gov. Rick] Snyder is required to approve a Chapter 9 filing. As of Wednesday, Snyder said he had not received any such request from Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr. Sources close to the governor said the situation is fluid, adding that Snyder intends to study Orr’s recommendations and related documents “for a couple of days” before making his decision.
The bankruptcy filing comes as an Ingham County judge is preparing Monday to hear arguments from retirees seeking to stop the bankruptcy filing, which produced an automatic stay of all pending litigation and capped a month of intense talks between Orr’s team and creditors, which largely have failed to restructure as much as $20 billion in debt and long-term liabilities.
News of an imminent filing prompted lawyers for the city’s pension funds to request an emergency hearing this afternoon in Ingham County Circuit Court to block a bankruptcy authorization.
The Chapter 9 filing could take years, experts say, despite hopes by the governor and Orr that the case can be wrapped up in a year. A bankruptcy judge could trump the state constitution by slashing retiree pensions, ripping up contracts and paying creditors roughly a dime on the dollar for unsecured claims worth $11.45 billion.
The bankruptcy plan was expected to closely follow Orr’s restructuring proposal that was unveiled to creditors on June 14 — a proposal that drew criticism from some creditors who said the cuts were too deep and did not include the sale of city assets, including Belle Isle and a Detroit Institute of Arts collection worth billions. He proposed paying most of the money owed to secured creditors while pension funds, unions and unsecured bondholders would receive, in some cases, 10 cents on the dollar.
The filing is expected to trigger a costly, long and precedent-setting battle by creditors and Detroit’s bankruptcy case could become a template for the treatment of pensions in the largely uncharted world of municipal bankruptcies.
Unsecured creditors could take the biggest hit in bankruptcy court. Orr wants them to share a $2 billion payout on approximately $11.5 billion worth of debt, which includes an estimated $9.2 billion in health and pension benefits and $530 million in general-obligation bonds.
Instead of paying creditors in full, Orr would use $1.25 billion over the next decade to buy police cars and fire trucks, replace broken street lights, tear down burned-out homes, fight blight and improve city services.
Once the nation’s fourth largest city, Detroit was hailed as an industrial hub with nearly 2 million people. Today, after a half-century of residential flight, high unemployment, a significant reduction in state funding, plummeting income and property taxes, corruption and chronic mismanagement, the bankruptcy filing solidifies the city’s standing as a model of urban decline.