By Dan Walters
dwalters@sacbee.com The Sacramento Bee
Published: Friday, Feb. 19, 2010 – 12:00 am | Page 3A

California’s city governments, especially those that overspent windfall revenues during the housing boom, are in trouble as the state’s recession grinds on.

Vallejo already has filed for bankruptcy protection. Dozens of other cities face severe budget deficits that, unless closed, could lead to the same sorry place. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa even suggested it as a possibility while calling for spending cuts. The B-word has also been kicked around in San Diego, which has an immense unfunded retirement obligation.

Stockton, hard hit by the housing meltdown, is finding that the lavish sports and entertainment venues it constructed – not to mention a hugely expensive new marina – are financial sinkholes. Documents that the Stockton Record extracted from the city revealed that its sports arena has lost $9 million since 2005 and the new ballpark nearby is also hemorrhaging red ink.

But, as the old saying goes, necessity can be the mother of invention, and cities are becoming inventive – perhaps overly so – in developing new revenues that don’t carry the poisonous label of “taxes.”

Stockton and dozens of other cities, for instance, are charging hefty fees for fire and ambulance services rendered at the scene of auto accidents, but exempt their residents from paying, even if they are at fault.

An Indiana company, Emergency Services Billing Corp., is going from town to town, telling local officials that they’ll bill accident victims and/or their insurers, while keeping about a fourth of the collections for itself. To local officials, it is just some free, no-risk money to help close their yawning budget gaps.

Roseville, the Sacramento suburb bisected by busy Interstate 80, jumped at the chance. Sacramento, with four major highways (Interstates 5 and 80 and Highways 99 and 50), is on the verge of joining the party, seeing hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional revenues.

Roseville, meanwhile, is one of several cities that are taking advantage of recent spikes in state-established fines for traffic infractions (a ludicrous $1,876 for a second offense of parking in a disabled zone, for example) by creating their own, much lower schedules of traffic fines.

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