Time to Look at Bell

Home to 37,000 people, Bell, California is one of the least prosperous suburbs of Los Angeles at a per capita income of about $24,000, yet its residents pay the second-highest property tax rate in Los Angeles County — even higher than that of Beverly Hills.

The taxes have gone to pay some of the highest public sector compensation in the nation, including $787,000 to its city manager and up to $100,000 each for city council members. In comparison, the salary of the CEO of Los Angeles County is $338,000. Bell officials have boasted of balanced budgets but records show compensation for its management employees has continued to rise even in the face of layoffs and other cuts to public safety and community services programs.

The Los Angeles Times first reported on the over-the-top salaries in mid-July. The resignations of the city manager, assistant city manager and police chief followed. Since then, further investigations by the Times, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office and state authorities have focused on the following:

  • Illegal implementation of a “retirement tax” that resulted in Bell’s overcharging $2.9 million in property taxes

  • Sewer fee assessments that exceeded the state legal limit in 2007

  • An aggressive auto impounding program that became a major municipal revenue source

  • A discovery that the city’s advisory boards and commissions — the primary sources of extra compensation for most council members — were meeting rarely or very briefly

  • A charity run by a former mayor of Bell, whose officers did not disclose the government funding it received (including a contract with Bell) to provide services to seniors

  • A municipal program that loaned as much as $1.5 million to city employees and council members — some of whom did not include the information on state financial disclosure forms.
  • Councilman Lorenzo Velez is the lone council member who accepted no more than his $8,000 salary for serving on the council. Bell residents have initiated election recall efforts for the other four members including the mayor.

    Bell became a California charter city (PDF) — a status equivalent to Illinois’ Home Rule — in 2005. The special election that resulted in its becoming a charter city has also come under investigation because only 1% of the voters cast ballots and most of the ballots cast were absentee. Charter city status removes salary limitations imposed by the state.

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    [I very much appreciate those of you who have been sharing links to Bell-related stories since the scandal first broke. This holds a lot of interest for folks in DeKalb and beyond who are grappling with issues surrounding property taxes, public sector compensation, public safety layoffs and Home Rule — not to mention all the “what-ifs” surrounding Victor Wogen and the City of DeKalb’s contract scandal. Thanks much! L.]

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