Down the spiral

This will be repeated all over the country:

HAMTRAMCK, Mich. — Leaders of this city met for more than seven hours on a Saturday not long ago, searching for something to cut from a budget that has already been cut, over and over.

This time they slashed money for boarding up abandoned houses — aside from circumstances like vagrants or obvious rats, said William J. Cooper, the city manager. They shrank money for trimming trees and cutting grass on hundreds of lots that have been left to the city. And Mr. Cooper is hoping that predictions of a ferocious snow season prove false; once state road money runs out, the city has set nothing aside to plow streets.

“We can make it until March 1 — maybe,” Mr. Cooper said of Hamtramck’s ability to pay its bills. Beyond that? The political leaders of this old working-class city almost surrounded by Detroit are pleading with the state to let them declare bankruptcy, a desperate move the state is not even willing to admit as an option under the current circumstances.

“The state is concerned that if they say yes to one, if that door is opened, they’ll have 30 more cities right behind us,” Mr. Cooper said, as flurries fell outside his City Hall window. “But anything else is just a stop gap. We’re going to continue to pursue bankruptcy until the door is shut, locked, barricaded, bolted.”

Bankruptcy, increasingly common among corporations and individuals, remains rare for municipalities. Local leaders who want to win elections find it unappealing and often have other choices for solving financial woes. Besides, states have a say in whether a municipality may pursue bankruptcy at all, and they have every reason to avoid such an outcome, not least of all for fear of a creating a ripple effect that could cripple the municipal bond market and drive up the cost of borrowing.

Yet with anemic property tax revenues and forecasts of more dire financial times ahead, some experts and elected leaders fear that more localities may have to at least consider bankruptcy.

“There could be many cities in this position next year,” said Summer Hallwood Minnick, director of state affairs for the Michigan Municipal League, who added that in this state, cities had already struggled with billions less than expected in state revenue sharing. “All our communities have done is cut, cut, cut. They’re down to four-day workweeks and the elimination of parks, senior centers, all of that. So if there’s anything else that happens, they will be over the edge.”

If you’ve been reading me for a long time, you already know what I think of bond dealers and the politicians who play footsie with them. These deals are where politicians hide all the really big kickback money, and the fact is that ordinary people will now suffer to keep bond deals profitable.