Sonoma County bankruptcy filings in 2011 fell for the first time in five years as fewer consumers sought protection from creditors.
However, a near-record number of residents and companies in Sonoma County are still struggling with debt despite the end of the recession nationally in 2009, according to new figures released this week by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Santa Rosa.
Sonoma County consumers and businesses filed 2,380 bankruptcy cases last year, down from 2010 but still the second-highest number in records going back more than two decades.
Business bankruptcies rose 3 percent, to 118 cases, while consumer bankruptcies dropped 8 percent to 2,262 cases.
Bankruptcy Judge Alan Jaroslovsky and other observers welcomed the drop in total cases but were cautious in characterizing the import.
"I think maybe we see the first glimmerings of being over the hump, but we've still got a long ways to go," said Jaroslovsky, who has presided over the Santa Rosa-based court for 25 years.
The number of cases is still double the historic workload for the court, he said.
"You could say the filings are down, but as far as we're concerned, we're still trying to keep our heads above water," he said.
Residents and businesses in Lake and Mendocino counties filed fewer bankruptcy cases last year, too.
Bankruptcy filings dropped 5 percent in Lake County, to 301 cases, and fell 4 percent in Mendocino County, to 245 cases.
Overall, North Coast bankruptcy filings declined 8 percent, to 4,688 cases, according to the Santa Rosa court, which serves seven counties along the coast from Marin to Del Norte.
Notable bankruptcies last year included Santa Rosa-based homebuilder Pinnacle Homes, Windsor Town Green developer Orrin Thiessen, Santa Rosa furniture retailer Cokas Diko, Forestville's Russian River Vineyards winery and restaurant and the Mendocino Coast Recreation and Parks District, which oversees the Fort Bragg Aquatic Center.
Bankruptcy filings peaked in 2010 as consumers and businesses sought to escape debt that piled up during the recession.
Three in four cases were filed by residents and companies attempting to liquidate their debts in Chapter 7 — sometimes called a "fresh start" bankruptcy.
The plunge in housing prices that began in 2007 is believed responsible for a spike in a category of personal bankruptcy known as Chapter 13. The number of such cases has risen steadily for five years and jumped 11 percent last year on the North Coast to 1,113 cases, or nearly a quarter of all bankruptcy filings.
This type of bankruptcy can allow underwater homeowners a chance to keep their homes by removing debt from a home equity line of credit but not from the primary, or first, mortgage.
"It's people trying to get rid of the second mortgage," said Santa Rosa bankruptcy attorney Ed Dechant.
Dechant sees a possible jump in Chapter 7 bankruptcies this year if foreclosures increase, due to the recent $25 billion mortgage settlement between banks and various state attorneys general. While foreclosure satisfies the debt on the principal mortgage, the lenders of home equity loans can still seek repayment of those debts. In response, he said, many who lose their homes will seek protection from those creditors.
Robert Eyler, director of Sonoma State University's Center for Regional Economic Analysis, said the sluggish nature of hiring, wage growth, business income and home prices indicate that bankruptcy filings aren't likely to drop sharply in the near term.