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Published: Saturday, 4/2/2005

N.W. Ohio filings hit highest total ever

BY JON CHAVEZ
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

A less than robust local economy and expected passage of a federal law that would restrict who can file for protection from their debts apparently converged to vault northwest Ohio bankruptcy filings last month to the highest ever.

Cases totaled 1,499 in March for the 21 counties covered by U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Toledo, far surpassing other months.

Until two years ago, no single month ever had more than 1,000 cases, and six years ago the March filings were only about a third of that number last month.

The explosion, with March figures 27 percent higher than last year's and the year-to-date total 16 percent ahead of last year's record, appears to be a symptom of a struggling local economy and awareness that Congress is about to enact bankruptcy reforms that would curtail who can get excused from repaying their debts, experts said.

"This is not a fire drill," said Sam Gerdano, executive director of American Bankruptcy Institute, referring to the pending legislation.

"This is the real thing now and the word is out."

Patrick Hendershott, a bankruptcy attorney in Toledo, said the pending reforms have spurred local filings.

"Because this reform has been looked at by the government several times, I've never been very concerned it would pass - until now," he said.

Other local attorneys said their clients told them they were concerned about the legislation and wanted to file now, under the more generous rules for excusing debts.

The U.S. Senate passed its version of a reform bill last month, and the House is expected to do so next week. President Bush has said he will sign a reform bill into law.

But Dave Fickel, clerk in charge of the Toledo court, doubts the legislation generated the high filings.

Through February, filings locally were up 19 percent but were up just 1 percent in the Cleveland area and down 2 percent in the Akron area, he said.

"There seems to be something going on in northwest Ohio that is not reflected in other districts," Mr. Fickel said.

The local numbers, he said, appear to be because of a continuation of the troubles, people with high medical bills, unexpected bills, high credit-card charges, unemployment, and divorce.

"That still seems to be driving a lot of this," he said.

Jobless rates in most area counties rose in February, and many are at high rates compared to rates of the last few years.

There were 18,000 people unemployed in Lucas County alone, government figures show. March rates are not yet available.

The March bankruptcy filings in northwest Ohio notched the fifth month ever over 1,000. The first time came in March, 2003, but the highest previous month was March, 2004, at 1,179. Filings to date this year are 2,989, well ahead of last year, a year that eventually recorded a record 10,623 cases.

Record numbers have been set in each of the past four years.

There have been increases in both Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 cases locally.

Under the former, people can get most of their debts erased; under the latter, a repayment plan is established for most debts.

There has been no surge in bankruptcy filings nationwide, Mr. Gerdano said, but there are scattered reports of spikes in filings, largely attributed to the much-publicized reform legislation before Congress.

Contact Jon Chavez at:

jchavez@theblade.com

or 419-724-6128.


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