Charleston Makes List of Cities Most Likely to go Bankrupt; Mayor Disagrees

By: Lauren Schmoll Email
By: Lauren Schmoll Email

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- It's a list no city wants to be on, but Charleston is: the nine cities most likely to follow in the footsteps of Detroit, right into bankruptcy. spoke Wednesday with Charleston's mayor, who says the allegations are bogus.

Retirement is just around the corner for Assistant Fire Chief Bob Sharp. With two years to go, he's counting on the pension he'll receive from the Charleston Fire Department.

“We do not pay Social Security, so this is it for me,” Sharp said. “Unless I would maybe take another job.”

For Sharp and other public employees, that city pension will get him through his golden years.

But an article out Wednesday by the Washington Examiner lists Charleston as one of nine cities in danger of going bankrupt, following in the footsteps of Detroit.

“That really shocked me at first that that would be the case because I've always felt like the city has taken great steps not to become in debt to that point,” Sharp said.

In Detroit, there is a $19 billion debt. Detroit's leaders say it simply can't afford to pay out all the pensions it owes to retired city workers. Charleston Mayor Danny Jones says that is not the case there.

“Charleston is sound,” Jones said. “Charleston is not Detroit. Detroit ... I don't know how they're going to get out of their mess. But we're in good shape.”

The article says Charleston has the worst funded pension system of any major city in the U.S., with only 24 percent of the funds in place to cover more than $337 million in pension debt. But Jones says that is a figure for a fictional situation -- if all the pensions owed came due at once. Even so, the city has a plan in place to balance the books within 35 years.

“There's a half a cent sales tax that will kick in this fall, which will help us buy this down,” Jones said.

For Sharp, tha t-- and Charleston's track record -- is enough to keep his mind at ease.

“I've never really had a worry in that,” Sharp said. “I know we've had a paid fire department here since 1893, and we've never laid anyone off in that time period.”

The mayor blames the state legislature for the mess because of a law passed years ago. Since then, new legislation has made it possible for cities to change the formula and help themselves keep things solvent.

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