ISLETON, CALIF. — The most serious problems started back in 2004, when Pam Pratt was recalled as mayor of this tiny city on the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, a half-square-mile known these days for crawdads and municipal chaos.
In the dysfunction that followed, Isleton stopped paying its bills. City workers and council members ran up $600,000 in attorneys' fees. The city spent more than $156,000 that belonged to its waste collector and had to pay it back -- with interest.
Money disappeared from the Crawdad Festival. Budgets were based on growth that never materialized. The city administration raided more than $150,000 from redevelopment funds to keep Isleton running.
Then, just when Isleton had hatched a plan to try to borrow its way to solvency, the economy fell apart.
With tax revenues dwindling and credit scarce, even healthy cities are facing painful choices. Troubled ones are increasingly vulnerable. These days, it's hard to find a California city in as much distress as Isleton, which has 817 residents, is $950,000 in the hole and is trying like crazy to stave off bankruptcy.
"Some people have said, 'Just hand it over to the county and go home,' " said City Manager Bruce Pope, who was hired in 2007 to help turn Isleton's fortunes around. "Sacramento County has its own deficit. They don't need our problems."
Not to mention that "disincorporation" is complicated and expensive. The last California city to pull the plug on itself is believed to have been Cabazon in Riverside County, about 1972. The process would cost Isleton about $250,000, and the government would still have to provide full services even as it breathed its last.
If Isleton had that kind of money, Pope noted, it wouldn't need to commit civic suicide. His city may be too poor to live, but it's also too poor to die.
Many of Isleton's miseries have been self-inflicted, but it's far from the only California city in difficult straits. Hard-luck Rio Vista, just across the Sacramento River, has consulted with bankruptcy attorneys but managed to cut its way to relative safety -- for now. Vallejo, 36 miles northwest, filed for bankruptcy protection in May.
Watsonville closed all city services except police and fire for two weeks over the holidays. Calexico declared a fiscal emergency last week.
The state's 10 biggest cities are more than a quarter-billion dollars in the red this fiscal year. Next year, San Francisco and Los Angeles predict a combined $1-billion deficit.
Anyone looking for a symbol of Isleton's woes need only drive to the eastern tip of 6th Street. The road ends with an unfinished, weed-filled traffic circle, at once shabby and vaguely optimistic.
To the north rise 18 new three-story homes, with Craftsman touches, a riparian palette and model names like "Brianna" and "Isabella." There were supposed to be about 80 houses in the first phase and ultimately more than 300 units.
A dispute over water infrastructure halted construction. Then the housing market crashed. Today, the houses are empty.
But if the development is completed, it could pose more problems for Isleton. For starters, the city's fire equipment isn't tall enough to protect the houses -- even if the new neighborhood had water.
Before construction begins on any project, developers and city government agree on so-called impact fees to pay the city for necessities, such as sewers, roads, and police and fire service.
In the case of the Village on the Delta development, "the impact fees agreed upon by the inexperienced representatives and staff are inadequate and place a further burden on the city's finances," a 2008 report by the Sacramento County Grand Jury warned.
Last year's investigation, the sixth grand jury proceeding to focus on Isleton since 1990, described the city as "in a state of perpetual crisis."
Many small municipalities have difficulty recruiting and keeping experienced staff and finding residents willing to serve as council members, but Isleton stands out. It has churned through six city managers since 2003 and eight mayors since 2004 -- half a dozen of those mayors in one 13-month stretch.
At various times in the recent past, only three of the five City Council seats were filled, and many major decisions were made by an illegal 2-1 vote.
The most recent grand jury report singled out the Isleton Firefighters Assn. and volunteers -- under a previous chief -- as a major problem, noting that they "seemed to believe they were running the department independent of city oversight." One example: they decided to buy the chief an SUV without city approval.
"It was a Keystone Kop management system," said Donald W. Prange Sr., foreman of the grand jury. "Isleton was such a screwed-up mess and still is. I can understand why they're in the fix they're in. . . . I hate to see it. It's a good little town."
Self-proclaimed "Crawdad Town" and onetime Asparagus Capital of the World, this "good little town" is located on a bend in the Sacramento River.