San Bernardino survived 2012, barely. It's on life support, with a federal bankruptcy judge for now preventing creditors from suing the anemic city for payment on bills it says it can't cover.

City officials claim they've stopped the life-threatening financial hemorrhaging of the past few years by cutting some costs and putting off certain payments. But San Bernardino is far from out of the woods.

The real work to bring the city back to life is just beginning.

With the immediate crisis of 2012 behind the city - the discovery of its extreme financial failure and the bankruptcy filing that followed - this board believes the new year is the right time to begin a sustained effort to put San Bernardino on the path to recovery.

This is a job for not just those who make themselves at home at City Hall, but for all who work and live in San Bernardino - because what's at stake is more than political careers. It's about whether the city can afford to pick up trash, maintain parks and libraries, fight fires and protect residents.

So the city that has become a cautionary tale for other struggling municipalities must come together and clear a path forward. Without such a plan, we fear for the city's future.

To that end, the editorial board commits itself to examining and recommending amendments to the policies and practices that led San Bernardino to a federal judge's courtroom in Riverside.


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In the coming weeks and months, this space will be used to analyze best practices for municipal management, fiscal stewardship, political cooperation, community-building and more - all in an effort to do what we can to help San Bernardino find its way.

For months, city leaders have been focused on San Bernardino's immediate dilemma, a severe cash-flow problem that came to light in July and led the City Council to declare a fiscal emergency. That decision cleared the way to a bankruptcy filing in August.

Judge Meredith Jury has yet to rule on the city's eligibility for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection, which has been challenged by the state pension system, a city employee group and others.

Meanwhile, city officials say a pendency plan filed with the court - a kind of financial road map - shows San Bernardino can eliminate its $45.8 million deficit through a combination of cuts and deferred payments to creditors such as CalPERS. The pendency plan, which could take more than a year to execute once approved by the judge, is only a first step toward correcting the books.

It will take years to secure the city's long-term finances, Acting City Manager Andrea Travis-Miller recently told our editorial board. In the meantime, the city's costs will continue to increase.

This is why San Bernardino's elected leaders, and the community they serve, must get to work reshaping city government.

Among the ideas the city must immediately begin to explore:

A top-down administrative reorganization, which may require changes to the City Charter and a vote of the people.

A thorough examination of the City Charter, particularly provisions that are susceptible to use as political weapons or that lock the city into spending levels it cannot sustain.

An analysis of potential cost-cutting measures, such as contracting with outside agencies and companies to provide necessary city services.

A review of possible revenue-enhancing measures, such as improved fee collections and new, targeted taxes.

Residents, we're sure, have some ideas of their own to improve municipal life in San Bernardino. Now is the time for them to speak up. The City Council needs to hear from folks all over the city, not just those who make a habit of attending meetings.

The city has made it easy to keep up with the latest in its bankruptcy proceedings. Documents related to court filings are available on the city's website at http://www.ci.san-bernardino.ca.us/, where residents will also find a comprehensive analysis of the city's organizational structure prepared by a management consulting firm in 2007. 

Those with the biggest stake in San Bernardino - residents and business owners, especially - must begin playing a more prominent role in decision-making at City Hall. Any reforms to the City Charter, for example, must come from the community, not the politicians who have been known to use the century-old document to clobber one another.

The only thing worse than San Bernardino's current financial malady is the possibility that it won't be thoroughly eradicated. The city's best hope at preventing a return to fiscal insolvency rests with its citizenry - one that must become engaged like never before.