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Bell homeowners await refunds from tax scam

September 13, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
With the stroke of a pen, a celebration erupted on the doorstep of Bell City Hall Monday morning. Lt. Governor Abel Maldonado, acting governor while Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is on a trade mission in Asia, signed Assembly Bill 900 into law. AB 900 will return about $3 million in overcharged taxes to Bell residents.In August, an audit found that about 4,000 residents had been overcharged $2.9 million in property taxes, with the surplus going toward the pensions and exorbitant salaries of certain city officials. Former City Manager Robert Rizzo, for example, was earning about $1.5 million per year in salary and pension benefits.

A crowd of about 200 people gathered outside City Hall to watch Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado sign the bill. Maldonado acted in place of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is currently in Asia on a state trade mission.

Many said they had to see the signing with their own eyes. Trust is a big issue for them, but residents were thrilled, calling the bill their first victory in reclaiming what is theirs.

"I'm angry -- we are angry -- I'm angry that elected officials in Bell extorted money from the residents, money from the people that they took an oath of office in this building to swear to protect. We are all mad at that," Maldonado said.

The Assembly bill was rushed through the legislature after it was discovered that the city was charging property owners tax rates over the legal limit.

"If this wouldn't have hit the media, this wouldn't have been out there. We still would have been overpaying in property taxes, we still would have had Robert Rizzo here," said Nora Saenz of Bell.

Luis Pineda of Bell said he saw his property taxes increasing fast.

"Every year, like another thousand, maybe $800, and so on and on, so it's ridiculous. Last year, I paid over $5,000 in taxes for my house," he said.

The refunds residents will get will include interest, and the amount each individual receives will depend on their property values. It's still unclear exactly when residents will receive their refunds, but officials said they should get them no later than the end of the year.

The 4,000 residents identified in that state audit will be getting back about $300 each, and officials say the checks should be in the mail in the next few weeks.

Some homeowners say the refunds will help, but the refunds will do little to restore their faith in local government.

As residents await their refund, they are wasting no time with recall efforts. Over the weekend, they continued to rack up signatures to get four city council members recalled.

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