While Chicago’s place at the bottom of the list is unsurprising, New York City’s position — just one step above — was unexpected. An extended bull market and soaring real estate prices have pumped money into the Big Apple’s coffers. Total municipal revenues rose from $60 billion in 2009 to $81 billion in 2015. But the city has been spending the money almost as quickly as it has been coming in.
At the end of its 2015 fiscal year, the city’s general fund reserves amounted to just 0.67 percent of expenditures — well below the Government Finance Officers Association recommendation of 16.67 percent (equivalent to two months of spending). A city’s general fund is roughly analogous to an individual’s checking account.
New York City also carries a very heavy debt burden. According to a report issued by City Comptroller Scott Stringer, New York’s per capita debt greatly exceeds that of all other large U.S. cities, and is even 50 percent higher than that of Chicago. But the comptroller’s report only focuses on bonded debt. Government financial accounting standards require cities to report other long-term obligations such as pensions, compensated absences for municipal employees (accrued sick and vacation leave payable at retirement) and “other post-employment benefits” (or OPEB).
It is New York’s OPEB obligation that really sets the Big Apple apart. In 2015, the city’s OPEB liability was $85 billion — roughly equivalent to its bonded debt.