The Southern California city of about 210,000 people will also become the second largest in the nation ever to file for bankruptcy. Stockton, the Northern California city of nearly 300,000, became the biggest when it filed for Chapter 9 on June 28.
The City Council directed the city attorney to make the move during a meeting where administrators explained the dire fiscal circumstances and urged them to choose the bankruptcy option.
"We have an immediate cash flow issue," Interim City Manager Andrea Miller told Mayor Patrick Morris and the seven-member City Council, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Miller said the city is facing a budget shortfall of $45.8-million. It has already stopped paying some vendors, and may not be able to make payroll over the next three months.
Four council members voted for the authorization, two opposed it, and one abstained.
"This is probably the hardest decision this councilwoman will ever have to make in this chair," Councilwoman Wendy McCammack said, according to the San Bernardino Sun.
The councilman who abstained from voting, John Valdivia, said he did not trust the information presented at the meeting, and having only served since March believed he should not be held responsible for the money mess.
"The taxpayers of this city have been duped, hoodwinked and misguided for the past several years," Valdivia said, according to the Sun.
It was not immediately clear when the city planned to file.
Sixty miles east of Los Angeles, San Bernardino is in a region that soared economically during the housing boom, and suffered accordingly after the crash.
It joins a number of other cities and counties across the nation that have plunged into financial crisis as the recession made it tough to cover rising costs involving payroll, pensions, bondholders and vendors.
Before Stockton, a California city had not filed for bankruptcy since Vallejo in 2008.
Now, with Mammoth Lakes also voting to declare Chapter 9 on July 3, the state has seen three in two weeks.
Since Congress added Chapter 9 to the bankruptcy code in 1937 to allow municipalities to seek protection, about 640 government entities have filed.