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Suggestion to cut police department to stay solvent prompts political fight in Bell

December 19, 2010 | 12:20 pm

http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/.a/6a00d8341c630a53ef0133f27d72f6970b-500wi

The already fractured political landscape in scandal-plagued Bell is expected to worsen in the coming months as the city considers slashing spending to stay solvent.

Though many residents know the city's finances were bad, a draft audit by the L.A. County auditor-controller found that the city needed to make deep cuts in its budget, including possibly eliminating the Bell Police Department and contracting with the L.A. County Sheriff's Department. Cuts are also possible in other programs, including parks and recreation.

This weekend, the Bell Police Officers' Assn. came out fighting, suggesting that closing the police department would hurt public safety and disputing claims that the city would save money by bringing in the Sheriff's Department.

"There have already been cutbacks of police officers and public safety resources," said Gilbert Jara, the president of the Bell Police Officers’ Assn., in a statement. "We need more police officers on the streets to fight gangs, drug traffickers, domestic abusers and other criminals — not less.”

The specter of closing the police department was present at the annual food and toy giveaway held by officers Friday afternoon at the Bell Community Center.

Capt. Tony Miranda stood in front of dozens of families, with a microphone in hand, and addressed everyone: “We do this every year because we love doing this,” he says. “And we’ll continue to do this, God willingly.”

News that more cuts were coming was met with outrage from residents at the event. To many, it was the latest indignity after a series of blows that began with revelations that top city officials were earning huge salaries and continued when L.A. County prosecutors charged eight current and former leaders in a sweeping public corruption case.

“It makes me angry,” said Jeanette Cardona, 28. “Our city has gone through a lot.”

Some vowed to fight the possible closing of the police department. “You know, 9/11 was America’s wake up call, the drug cartels was Mexico’s wake up call and on the West Coast,” said Aflredo Vasquez, 46, “This is a wake up call for every little town like Bell.”

The auditor-controller's report found that Bell has been running a deficit totaling several million dollars over at least the last three years under former Chief Administrative Officer Robert Rizzo. The red ink is the result of hefty salaries and pensions for top Bell officials and extensive city-run programs, the review found. To cover part of the deficit, city officials took money raised by the sale of bonds for specific projects and diverted it to the general fund.

--Ruben Vives in Bell

Photo: Angry residents at a City Council meeting in Bell earlier this year. Credit: Los Angeles Times

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