Bell council OKs property tax cuts after state audit shows it overcharged to cover pensions

Aug 17th, 2010 | By usnews | Category: U.S.

BELL, Calif. –  The City Council, embroiled in a pay and pension scandal, unanimously voted Tuesday to lower property taxes after a state audit showed it overcharged residents to cover pension costs for exorbitantly paid staffers.

In a meeting that lasted nearly nine hours, the council also gave control over the next municipal election to Los Angeles County and cut copying fees for public records.

A state audit last week found Bell had overcharged residents more than $3 million during the past three years to pay for pension obligations.

The finding came after prosecutors launched investigations into high salaries paid to the city’s leaders, including nearly $800,000 to the former city manager.

Bell is a community of about 37,000 people located about 10 miles south of Los Angeles.

Hundreds of residents showed up at the meeting, demanding four of the five council members resign and reprimanding the panel for turning Bell into what was called an epicenter of corruption.

“If you have any dignity, you need to resign,” resident Violeta Alvarez said during the public comment period.

A man dressed as a clown referred to the lawmakers as the “City Clowncil.”

Councilman Lorenzo Velez has avoided the anger directed at his colleagues because he was never drawing the high salary of nearly $100,000 a year they were, and he was one of the early supporters of reform in the city.

For the first time in the council’s tenure, a court reporter was hired to record the meeting.

The reduced taxes will apply to those due in November. If a home has an assessed value of $400,000, the owner will save $360 a year under the revised pay structure.

Councilman Luis Artiga said the panel also plans to ask the state if it can refund the money directly to taxpayers.

The city manager, police chief and assistant city manager all resigned last month shortly after the scandal broke.

A group called the Bell Association to Stop the Abuse staged a rally before the meeting. The public portion of the meeting ran past midnight, then the council went into private session, adjourning shortly after 3 a.m.

During the public part of the meeting, the council named Jamie Casso of the Meyers Nave law firm as interim city attorney and Pedro Carrillo of Urban Associates Inc. as acting city manager. Velez voted against both appointments.

“We will take appropriate action to restore dignity, trust and faith in City Hall,” Casso said in a statement he read at the meeting.

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