TAMPA — By most measures, the Tampa Bay area has a robust economy. Job growth is strong, home prices are climbing, construction cranes are everywhere.
But there is a troubling sign — after years of decline, bankruptcy filings are again on the rise.
Last year, 24,366 individuals and businesses filed for bankruptcy protection in Florida's middle district, which includes the Tampa Bay area. Although that was far fewer than at the peak of the foreclosure crisis, it was the first year-over-year increase in filings since 2010. And filings have continued to rise every month since September.
That worries Chief Bankruptcy Judge Michael G. Williamson, especially because he's not sure of the reason.
"There is definitely something going on when for eight years cases go down and all of sudden they start going up month after month,'' Williamson said this week. "You have to have some cause for concern that something is happening but I don't know what it is.''
One possible clue: As of February, consumer debt nationwide hit $4 trillion for the first time ever, the Federal Reserve announced. Americans added billions to their credit card bills during a relatively strong holiday shopping season even as student loan debt and auto loan refinancings continue to rise.
William said one Tampa Bay woman in bankruptcy recently affirmed that she planned to keep her car, which she had purchased for $13,000 but for which she now owes $18,000.
"I said, 'so you never finished paying off the last car, you just rolled over the deficiency,' '' Williamson recalled. "You've got that sort of thing going but that's not a game changer. That's a minor factor, and I don't think foreclosure are going up.''
As of the end of last year, just 1 percent of all Tampa Bay homes with mortgages were in some stage of foreclosure compared to more than 5 percent at the height of the crisis. In 2010, bankruptcy filings in Florida's middle district soared to 66,618, making it the second busiest bankruptcy court in the nation.
In 2011, though, the number of new filings declined to 45,970 and continued to drop every year until last year. In January and February, filings in the middle district were 13 percent higher than in the same period a year ago .
Nationwide, bankruptcy filings have also increased, though at a much slower rate. Filings in January and February rose about two percent.
It is possible, Williams said, that the increase in Tampa Bay filings is due at least in part to the area's rapid population growth. " Maybe we're getting back to what would be normal levels and we just dipped below what would be filings for our size,'' he said. "People are moving here and sometimes they have financial problems.''
Historically, the three main drivers of bankruptcy are divorce, medical bills and job loss. With Tampa Bay's economy strong, overspending might have replaced job loss as the reason people find themselves in financial trouble.
"It could definitely be (due to) credit cards,'' Williamson said of the increase in filings. "People are back to work, they're starting to get credit. Maybe we've just gone through a period of easy credit.''
But that might be only part of the reason, he acknowledges.
"The bankruptcy judges saw the Great Recession coming a mile away, you had cocktail waitresses with mortgages on $400,000 houses,'' Williamson said. "The tech crash, we could see that one. But I don't know what's causing this when you see all those buildings going up and all the apartments and full employment and for some reason bankruptcy cases are starting to go back up. Am I worried? Yes, I am.''
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at email@example.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.