Detroit Bankruptcy Represents Largest Municipal Case in U.S. History

Bankruptcy is most often used as a way for individuals and businesses to either discharge debts or reorganize them into a more manageable payment plan. But governments, particularly cities and counties, can declare bankruptcy as well for the same reason: unmanageable levels of debt.

Municipal bankruptcies are fairly rare. They have happened at the rate of about one per year since the Great Depression. But in the wake of the U.S. and global recession of recent years, the filing and/or consideration of municipal bankruptcies have become an ever-present part of the news.

Last year, the controversy in Detroit, Michigan dominated headlines for weeks. The city filed for bankruptcy, but the legality of the filing was in question for almost a year. Detroit filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy on July 18, 2013. The next day, judge Rosemarie Aquilina ruled the filing violated the Michigan Constitution by interfering with pension payments. She ordered Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to withdraw the filing. Snyder appealed the ruling, and the Bankruptcy Court declared a federal stay of state laws to make the bankruptcy legal. After a trial for objections and several deadlines, the Bankruptcy Court ruled the filing legal in December 2013, and the bankruptcy procedure moved forward.

On June 3, the state legislature of Michigan passed a number of bills designed to prevent Detriot from falling into the same state of emergency again.

It was by far the largest bankruptcy filing of any municipality in U.S. history, both in terms of debt and in terms of the population. Detroit’s debt was estimated at $18-$20 billion, towering over the previous record-holder, Jefferson County, Alabama, which declared bankruptcy in 2011 with some $4 billion in debt. And Detroit’s population is about 700,000, or more than twice that of Stockton, California, which went bankrupt in 2012.

One of the main reasons for Detroit’s financial troubles is a steadily declining population and, therefore, tax base. Its peak population was 1.8 million in 1950. Other causes the city named in its bankruptcy filing were pension and health care costs for retired workers, a dismal rate of property tax collection – with nearly half not having paid for 2011 – budget deficits, government corruption and poor record keeping.

Many consider pensions for current retirees to be untouchable in bankruptcies. The question of whether the modification of debt obligations in bankruptcy proceedings trumps state constitutional protections of pensioners’ rights is being tested for the first time in a Chapter 9 case.

President Obama commented that the federal government is “committed to continuing our strong partnership” with Detroit, but he did not indicate any intention to attempt a bailout of the city, even when the bankruptcy was uncertain. Gov. Snyder has said he does not support the idea of a bailout, saying “accountable government” is the answer.

The ability of bankruptcy to allow individuals, businesses, and governments to move on from untenable financial situations is key to keeping our economy flowing smoothly, but when the livelihood of many thousands of pensioners is on the line, the issue becomes much more complicated.

O. Reginald (“Reggie”) Osenton is the Owner and President of Osenton Law Offices, P.A. If you need a Bankruptcy attorney in Brandon, Tampa lawyer, call 813.654.5777 or visit

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