The economic slump, however, is forcing debt-laden cities, towns and smaller taxing districts throughout the U.S. to consider using Chapter 9. As their revenue declines faster than expenses, some public entities are scrambling to keep making payments on municipal bonds. And that is causing experts to worry about the safety of securities traditionally considered low risk.
"People believe that municipal debt is safe based on assumptions that are no longer true," says Kenneth Buckfire, managing director and chief executive of Miller Buckfire & Co., an investment bank that has worked with corporations on restructurings and now is advising municipalities. For example, it isn't safe to assume that governments can raise taxes to cover shortfalls, he says.
Even threatening bankruptcy signals that municipalities are willing to compromise the security of bondholders, says Richard Raphael, an analyst at Fitch Ratings. That makes it harder for cities and towns to raise money from investors and will slow the U.S. economic recovery.
In Harrisburg, which is Pennsylvania's capital and has a population of about 47,000, a March 1 deadline is looming on a payment of $2 million out of the $68 million due this year for the financing of an incinerator plant. The facility has about $288 million in overall debt.
"Bankruptcy is inevitable," Mr. Miller says. "We are in a terrible bind." A budget passed Saturday by Harrisburg's city council didn't include any funds to cover the debt payments, according to the city clerk's office.