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New Bell council must act quickly to avoid insolvency; big budget cuts likely [Updated]

March 9, 2011 |  6:56 am


Bell's newly elected City Council won't have much of a honeymoon as the city faces a financial crisis that could result in major cuts to services.

Bell's management has said the city risks insolvency if it cannot balance its budget, which was placed hugely out of whack after officials learned the administration of former city manager Robert Rizzo had illegally collected millions of dollars in taxes.

The city faces a deficit of $3.5 million to $4.5 million and has defaulted on a $35-million bond.

The city's interim administrator, Pedro Carrillo, had been pushing the old council to address the budget issues. But the council had met only three times in the last five months. Four of the five council members face criminal charges of public corruption. All five were recalled on Tuesday.

One of the big questions for the new council will be whether to eliminate the Police Department and contract with the L.A. County Sheriff's Department.

The city has trimmed the city's $14-million budget by $3.8 million. The number of full-time employees has dropped 16%, from 82 to 69. Nonetheless, the city's reserves are down to $300,000.

Carrillo has been managing the budget woes in the meantime. But in an interview last month he said it's ultimately the council that needs to sit down "make some tough choices and get moving."

Unofficial results showed residents voted overwhelmingly to recall Mayor Oscar Hernandez and council members Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal, as well as Luis Artiga, who quit the council last year but remained targeted for recall. Even Lorenzo Velez, the lone councilman not charged in the Bell corruption case, appeared to suffer collateral damage and lost his bid to keep his seat.

Danny Harber won the vote to replace Jacobo, Ana Maria Quintana was the top vote-getter to succeed Artiga, and Ali Saleh, Nestor Valencia and Violeta Alvarez will fill the other three seats.

The recall prompted celebrations in Bell. There was drumming and dancing. Some recall supporters drove around town in a caravan of cars honking their horns in celebration.

[Updated at 10:05 a.m.: Some longtime residents said they felt compelled to vote for the first time.

Manuel Godoy, 61, said he has lived in Bell for 30 years, raised three daughters there and owns a home. But he never felt the need to cast a ballot before Tuesday, even as in recent years he watched the city's property taxes climb to among the highest in the county.

"You get busy, you don't want to get involved," said Godoy, a retired caterer and ice cream deliveryman, after voting Tuesday. "It's a big mistake."

He said he was angered by revelations about the high salaries collected by Rizzo and most of the City Council members.

"It's OK to take a little piece of the pie, but not that much," he said. Eugene Crowner, 73, a retired railroad clerk, has lived in Bell so long that he can remember when all the families, like his, were white.

On Tuesday's ballot, most candidates were Latinos, some of whom he voted for. His polling site happened to be Grace Lutheran Church on Pine Avenue, where his father became pastor in 1941, and where he grew up playing on the parish grounds.

Crowner said he had been a voter for years, but he did something different this time: He brought a camera to commemorate the moment. This wasn't just any election.

"It ought to be a new beginning," Crowner said, walking down the block to the Spanish-tile home where he has lived most of his life. "We'll get a new broom to sweep out City Hall."

Something else was different this time, he said. There were lines.

Though less than a quarter of registered voters showed up for the 2009 elections, turnout among the 10,485 registered voters this year was 33%.

Crowner has followed the scandal and knows that some people have said it can't get much worse. He isn't so sure.

"When we get a new council sweeping out City Hall," he said, "there's no telling what they'll find."]


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Photo: Members of Bell's Lebanese community and supporters of Ali Saleh celebrate his victory in the city election in Bell on Tuesday night. Credit: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times