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Bell Considers Layoffs, Park Program Cuts : Finance: Wary of past mistakes, officials don't want to rely on card-club revenue to trim a $190,000 deficit.

August 30, 1990|TINA GRIEGO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BELL — City leaders are faced with a bare-bones budget that will mean employee layoffs and a drastic reduction in community services at all city parks because of an estimated $190,000 deficit and because the City Council is reluctant to rely on the fortunes of a new card casino to balance the budget.

The Department of Community Services, which includes public works, recreation and parks, would be hardest hit by reductions in the $5.4-million budget discussed by the council this week.

If the council approves the budget as scheduled Sept. 4, seven maintenance employees will be laid off, and the hours for park programs will be reduced from four hours a day seven days a week to two hours a day five days a week.

Community Services Director Jess A. Carbajal said that if the budget is adopted, there will be "basically no programs" at city parks or the community center.

Among the programs that may be affected are free legal services and income-tax advocacy at the community center, some arts and crafts and drop-in programs, city officials said.

The council Monday also discussed eliminating city tree trimming along residential streets, cutting three vacant positions for city employees and reducing janitorial services at City Hall from five days a week to one and at the city jail from five days a week to two.

"What people will start to see is fewer and fewer people in City Hall," City Administrator John Bramble said. "There are going to be some real impacts, but it's going to be the case where it takes a longer time to respond rather than not being able to respond at all."

In Bell, many of whose 33,000 residents earn less than $10,000 a year, according to the county Department of Regional Planning, it is a time for tough decisions, Mayor George Cole said.

"The needs in the community are tremendous, and the dollars are limited," he said.

The city's financial situation is so bad that last week Councilman Ray Johnson suggested selling some city property targeted for redevelopment.

"We could use the money," Johnson said.

Although city officials could balance the budget less painfully if they increased their projections of revenue from the newly opened Regency Card Club and Casino on Eastern Avenue, they said they are determined not to do so for fear of repeating the mistakes of the past.

City Council members said one reason they are in such a financial predicament is that in the early 1980s city administrators became too dependent on gaming revenues from the old California Bell Club.

In 1984, a former Bell councilman, a city administrator and several of the club's managers pleaded guilty to a scheme in which they had hidden interests in the club. Four years later, the club went bankrupt.

"While the poker club was a great boon, it was also an albatross around the city's neck, because everyone thought it was the panacea to the city's problems," said Cole, who was elected after the scandal. "Instead of relying on hard work to rebuild the city, we sat back. The attitude was that it looked like a great source of revenue, so why worry?"

The initial budget presented to the council earlier this year projected revenues of $750,000 from the club during the next fiscal year, but city leaders recently requested that the estimate be reduced to $500,000.

Officials cited other reasons for Bell's economic decline.

Bramble said one of the biggest problems for Southeast-area cities is that they are landlocked and have no more room to bring in new businesses that could boost their economies. Consequently, these cities have become dependent on redevelopment, a costly undertaking that doesn't pay off immediately.

Bell was also hit by a sharp increase in liability and workmen's compensation settlements, Bramble said. Many claims against the city filed in 1986 and 1987 have finally been processed, he said, and the city must pay the first $100,000 of any claim.

Last year, Bramble said, Bell paid $476,000 in out-of-court settlements and $373,000 for medical and insurance settlements stemming from workmen's compensation cases.

"It was unforeseen that that much expense would be involved in one year," he said.

City officials also blamed the end of federal revenue sharing in 1987, a program that once brought the city an average of $900,000 a year; the loss of a $1.5-million contract for police services in Cudahy, and the continued delay in receiving $2.1 million in back taxes from the bankrupt California Bell Club.

But Bramble said there are signs that the city's financial health will improve during the next two years.

The city is hoping to receive $130,000 to $150,000 a year in sales taxes from the Bell Palm Plaza redevelopment project, which is scheduled for completion next fall.

The council has discussed raising commercial trash hauling fees to $750 per truck, which could bring an additional $21,000 a year to the city. It has also discussed increasing business license taxes by 12%, which would bring in an additional $38,400 a year.

Sales tax receipts, the city's biggest source of income, are steadily increasing, and card club revenues in July were better than expected, officials said.

"We should all remember this is not cast in concrete," Councilman George Bass said. "Things could change. We could get more revenues from the card club, from sales tax. . . . Things could change."

NEXT STEP

The Bell City Council will hold a public hearing at 7 p.m. Tuesday at City Council chambers before adopting its 1990-91 budget. Council members had hoped to adopt the budget last Monday, but some council members have expressed concern over planned cuts in the Department of Community Services.

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