On Thursday, the Jefferson County Commission will conduct a special meeting in order to examine options about filing bankruptcy, or perhaps reaching a settlement with creditors.
The county’s sewer debt situation is an unfathomable $3.2 billion, with the county’s total debt at $4.3 billion.
If the county choose the first option, it would be the largest municipal bankruptcy in United States history. There would be a huge stigma attached with such a dubious distinction, but Jefferson County is known for living under dubious distinctions, most notably during the height of the state’s civil rights activism.
For this and many other reasons, a settlement would be the best option. But with the debt growing for 20 years and no true solution in sight, it is highly doubtful that all parties involved could reach a settlement that would please everyone involved.
With that in mind, even though it is a monumental move, bankruptcy seems to be the best — or perhaps, least worst — answer. The county is indebted so deeply that it would be best to just wipe it out and start over. Sometimes it comes to the point that you have to fish or cut bait. The county’s financial situation couldn’t possibly get worse, so Chapter 9 bankruptcy can’t hurt — and will likely help.
Citizens have funded an unfair amount of the burden that corrupt and/or incompetent employees and officials have created. In the past few years, the county has spent $20 million on attorneys in trying to resolve the debt crisis. And it’s not over: Two proposed bankruptcy lawyers — they both handled the Orange County, Calif., bankruptcy in 1994 — make $975 and $875 an hour.
No municipality should have to make such a dire and important decision, especially when they are funded largely with taxpayer money. But looking back does nobody any good, unless it is to learn from mistakes. The answer is neither clear nor easy, but the best choice in this case is for the county to start over.
And don’t ever, ever get into this mess again.