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Bell audit shows basic services at risk

January 6, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
A Los Angeles County audit shows the city of Bell's fiscal problems have worsened, and some drastic moves are needed.According to the new audit, which was released at a town hall meeting on Thursday, the small city is facing a more than $2 million deficit and residents are going to have to make some very tough choices, including the possibility of eliminating the police department.

"Based on our review, the city of Bell's finance condition is not sound," said L.A. County Auditor Wendy Wantanabe. "Bell certainly has serious challenges ahead of them."

She went on to explain that Bell might soon have problems paying for basic services for its 36,000 residents. The audit shows that Bell's general fund expenses will exceed projected revenue by more than $2.1 million, due largely to the exorbitant salaries that were being paid to several city officials, many of whom are now facing felony charges.

"The way they were managing their dollars is like somebody who keeps using another credit card to pay a credit card. That's sort of what was going on here," said L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molia, who spearheaded the audit and organized Thursday night's town hall meeting.

"They had no order in this city and so consequently, at least they should know their own numbers so when these decisions are made, whether they're made now or later, at least they will know why."

The city will save money by reducing salaries. For example, the new city manager will go from making more than $700,000 a year to an estimated $250,000 a year. Some positions will be eliminated, while others will have their salaries cut in half. Council member salaries have gone from $97,000 to about $8,100 annually.

But even with these savings, the city will need to cut elsewhere.

"Cutting one service is a lot for this some city that we leave in," said Bell resident Marcelino Ceja.

"All of the residents were able to be involved with this process so that they could see in reality the hard decisions that are going to need to be made down the road," said resident Jesus Casas.

The audit says by eliminating community services like the parks and recreation department and the police department, the city could save millions and reduce the deficit to about $400,000.

The city council will take up the issues after a special election on March 8.

Meanwhile, eight current and former Bell officials, most notably former City Administrative Officer Robert Rizzo, have been charged with misappropriation of public funds, in connection with the revelation that top administrators and elected officials were receiving exorbitant salaries.