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Bell Gardens Fire Station Site Is Fulcrum of Tax Tug-of-War

November 27, 1986|RITA PYRILLIS | Times Staff Writer

BELL GARDENS — It was late Friday at the peak of rush hour as a stream of cars coming in and out of the Bicycle Club was trying to maneuver around a fender-bender at Eastern Avenue and Fry Street.

Traffic was at a standstill for a couple blocks as Ray Nitkin looked out the window of his furniture store.

"I'm telling you, someone is going to get killed around here," said Nitkin, whose corner store is next to a Los Angeles County fire station. "All it's going to take is one fire engine trying to get through here in a hurry."

Safety has become an important bargaining point for city officials who are locked in battle with the Los Angeles County Fire Department. The city wants Fire Station 39 moved from its premium site on Fry Street--smack in the center of the city's commercial redevelopment district--and cannot use the power of condemnation on a county agency.

Title to Land Offered

As a result, the city has tried everything since negotiations began in 1982 to woo Fire Department officials into moving to the city's planned civic center two miles away on Garfield Avenue. They offered to give the county title to land at the civic center, and would even pay the cost of building the new station.

But Fire Department officials are not buying, saying they can operate safely and efficiently where they are, and won't be interested in any offer until the city agrees to let the Fire Department fully share in the tax revenue from the city's 140-acre Central City Redevelopment Project.

Under state law, when an area is marked for redevelopment, all revenue from property taxes that go to taxing agencies are frozen at pre-redevelopment levels. Additional revenue, called the tax increment, is funneled back to the redevelopment agency unless another agreement is reached. Fire officials say their agency should share fully in the tax bounty that redevelopment has brought to Bell Gardens.

"We don't get a break in the services we have to provide to the city; in fact, when more development takes place we have to provide more service, yet we are expected to provide all this without any additional revenue," said Deputy Fire Chief William Zeason. "We are not going to go unless the city agrees to full pass-through of the tax increment."

$700,000 for Building Offered

Though city officials are trying to satisfy unhappy county officials by offering $700,000--the estimated cost of building a new station, they are not willing to give the Fire Department more than 2% of the increment they are mandated to give by state law, said Robert Dickey, redevelopment agency director.

"We are not required to give them full pass-through and they are not going to get it," Dickey said. "If we need to, we will build up around them."

The station is less than a block away from the Bicycle Club, the city's most successful redevelopment project, and across the street from a 6 1/2-acre site running along Eastern from Fry to Priory Street, which the city is considering for a luxury hotel.

Since the the gambling club opened in November, 1984, and the Toys R Us shopping center on Florence Avenue was added in September, 1985, traffic along Eastern has doubled, city traffic engineers say. Traffic and parking problems will be compounded if the city proceeds with its hotel plans and a 20-acre commercial development on Eastern and Florence avenues.

The city has been negotiating with property owners behind the club and in several cases the city has used its power of eminent domain to take land for an 11-acre parking lot which the city will lease to the club. It wants the fire station site so it can add another parking lot--this one open to the public--that would serve downtown shoppers.

Need for Parking Spaces

The club, which has 750 parking spaces of its own, leases 320 spaces from the city, said Maria Aguirre, assistant city manager, but an additional 1,000 spaces may be needed for the club.

It was concern over traffic and parking that prompted the City Council last week to approve a proposed traffic study outlining traffic flow along the Eastern Avenue corridor.

The major problem city officials see with the existing fire station site is that "it creates a dangerous situation and it's going to get worse as traffic gets worse," City Manager Claude Booker said. "One day an engine will be hit and someone is going to be seriously hurt."

But Fire Department officials argue that safety is not at issue. The point of contention is property tax increments.

"I can think of at least a dozen locations where we have a station located in a busy commercial area and we find no safety hazard in operating that way," Zeason said.

Fire officials argue that although state law does not require cities to provide them with 100% of the Fire Department's portion of the tax increment, the department is forced to ask for it in order to make up for a $5.2-million departmentwide shortfall in the 1985-86 budget.

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