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Around the South Bay

Report fuels a Mobil-Torrance tussle over $5.4-million tax bill.

January 27, 1994

TAXING MATTERS: The city of Torrance claims that its single largest taxpayer, Mobil Oil Corp., has fallen behind in paying its taxes.

But this is not your average tax scofflaw story. City Hall wants a check from Mobil for a whopping $5.4 million in back taxes and penalties.

Mobil counters that not only has it paid the tax bill in full, but Torrance may actually owe more than $1 million to the oil giant, which operates a 750-acre refinery in the city.

Triggering this auditors' skirmish is a 1992 city consultant's report concluding that Mobil was not paying the required tax on the natural gas it consumed.

So the city sent Mobil a dunning notice last fall requesting about $4 million in back taxes as well as interest and a 25% penalty. Mobil insists, however, that the consultant's report was flawed and that Mobil may be due a $1.6 million refund, plus interest.

The tussle will continue at a Feb. 15 hearing before the City Council. But officials on both sides hasten to add that the disagreement is not marring the relative equanimity that has marked city-Mobil relations since 1990, when the two parties signed a consent decree ending a bitter legal battle over refinery safety.

"I don't see this as being a breakdown at all," said Mobil spokesman Barry Engelberg.

"We have no reason to believe that Mobil is going to refuse to pay any tax that they believe is legitimately due," added Torrance City Atty. John L. Fellows III. "We think they're trying to behave as a good corporate citizen."

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BILLIARD BLUES: Pool halls may once have been havens for sharks, but now owners are pitching their places to upscale professionals, families and the MTV set.

In Torrance, for example, plans are afoot to convert the Velvet Turtle into a National Sports Grill & Bar, which in other locations attracts a yuppie crowd to its pool tables.

That may be the trend, but not in Manhattan Beach. City planners still think that booze and billiards don't mix near residential neighborhoods.

Last month, the Planning Commission turned down plans to convert a former liquor store at 4005 Highland Ave. into Manhattan Beach Breakers, which would feature 14 pool tables, two game areas and a big-screen TV, plus an adjoining restaurant.

Commissioners objected to plans to serve liquor and keep the pool hall open until 2 a.m.

Owners of the pool hall, however, dispute that their establishment will attract the wrong element. They plan to appeal to the City Council.

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AUTO DECOR: The long-running controversy over the presence of two 1962 Chevy Novas in a Lawndale driveway drew to a close last week when the City Council decided the cars could stay.

The cars belong to City Councilwoman Nancy Marthens, who has described them as classics that she hopes to restore.

But city officials concluded last summer that the cars violated the city code regarding "inoperable vehicles," and the City Council deadlocked Jan. 6 when it tried to resolve the dispute.

Based on new information from the city attorney, however, the council voted last week to permit the two Novas to remain in Marthens' driveway.

Oh, and the city has decided to take a fresh look at how it defines "inoperable vehicles."

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SMOOTH TRANSITION: A month ago, it looked as if Rep. Jane Harman (D-Marina del Rey) would lose a connection to the Pentagon's top chief with the departure of Defense Secretary Les Aspin.

Aspin--a friend since her days in the Carter Administration--helped her get on powerful House committees. And their friendship didn't suffer when she and other lawmakers successfully lobbied to keep the Los Angeles Air Force Base in El Segundo open.

Harman, however, didn't have the same ties to Bobby Ray Inman, President Clinton's first choice for Pentagon chief. And one opponent in this year's election predicted she would "lose her sympathetic ear."

But with Clinton's latest nomination, Deputy Defense Secretary William Perry, Harman once again may have a friend in the top spot. She knew Perry from the Carter Administration as well.

"He is an excellent choice," she said. "He's very good for the South Bay and very good for this Administration."

At the very least, he has set foot in the neighborhood. In June, he went to a Hughes Aircraft Co. plant in El Segundo to survey some company projects.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

"A house, no matter how large it is, is a box to me. And I don't like being boxed in." --Barbara Kelley, on why she has lived aboard the Gypsy Clipper, a 52-foot wooden-hulled schooner in a Wilmington marina, for 40 years.

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