Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Bell Residents Keep Paying for Robert Rizzo's Crimes, Now With Higher Taxes

After March's recall elections in the small Los Angeles County city of Bell, which saw many members of the scandal-tainted City Council shown the door, members of the community could've been forgiven for thinking they'd put the worst behind them. Since then, however, the city's legal action against former City Manager Robert Rizzo has dragged along, the town has tried and failed to find a new city manager and auditing firm to right its swooning finances, and new revelations of the old guard's misdeeds have continued to emerge. Observers of the 2010 scandals may recall that one of the worst abuses was the $5.6 million in illegal taxes the City Council charged residents in order to inflate their own salaries. Well, the more things change, the more they stay the same: the LA Times is reporting that Bell homeowners are about to see a hike in their property taxes. Why? To pay off $50 million in parks bonds, much of which went into Rizzo's pockets.

Despite being one of LA County's poorest cities, Bell homeowners pay one of the county's highest property tax rates. As such, residents were understandably angry to learn of a three-year hike in those rates. Nevertheless, because the hike was imposed back in 2009, the new City Council says there's nothing they can legally do to stop it. The revenues from the tax won't help with Bell's budget crisis, as they'll be used solely to pay back bondholders on the $50 million debt. Back in 2003, the city issued the bonds with promises to build a sweeping complex that included baseball and soccer fields and a new library, and to make various improvements to parks and the Civic Center. Today, only $20 million are left, and the land remains vacant. Millions were spent on fencing and site preparation, and a chunk of the money went to boosting the salaries of Rizzo and other city officials. Bell's handling of the bonds is currently being investigated by the IRS, SEC, and the state Department of Corporations.

One option for getting out from under the debt would be returning the remaining $20 million, which would at least make future tax increases less likely. In the meantime, though, Bell's beleaguered citizens are going to have to dig a little deeper to pay for problems they didn't create.


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