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A Bonanza in Bell Gardens

Part-time council majority has voted itself salaries and benefits that surpass compensation in much larger cities. Long hours, extra duties justify the 157% hike, mayor says.

November 27, 1998|HUGO MARTIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bell Gardens, one of the poorest cities in Los Angeles County, pays each of its five part-time council members $31,375 per year.

That's 20% higher than Bell Gardens' median family income.

It's 10% more than City Council members make in Long Beach, a city 10 times larger.

It's 65% more than City Council members make in Anaheim, a city nearly seven times larger.

The Bell Gardens compensation includes an $825-per-month car allowance--more than twice the allowance paid to state Assembly members.

The pay package grew out of a 3-2 City Council vote last year when members created a Community Development Commission and designated themselves members of the board. Members now get $13,200 annually for sitting on the development board and $7,075 a year for service on the City Council. They also get a $100-a-month bilingual allowance, as do city employees who qualify for it.

Along with the car allowance, the new pay package amounted to a 157% hike in a city whose largely Latino population of 44,700 lives on 35% less income than the average Los Angeles County family.

By adopting a higher salary through the new development commission, the council sidestepped a state law that prohibits elected officials in general-law cities from increasing their own salaries by more than 5% a year without a vote of the people.

The council's compensation package dwarfs the pay of many larger cities. Long Beach, with a population of 446,200, pays its nine part-time council members $23,000 per year, as well as a car allowance of $450 per month.

Anaheim, with a population of 297,500, pays its part-time council members $12,000 per year, plus $25 for each weekly meeting they attend. They also receive $475 per month car allowance.

While some lawmakers are required to use their car allowance for car payments, Bell Gardens council members have no restrictions on how the money is spent, according to city officials.

The $825-per-month car allowance exceeds the $620-per-month car allowance paid to the five Los Angeles County supervisors and the $500 per month paid to the 15 members of the Los Angeles City Council. State Assembly members get $400 per month for a car allowance.

Long Hours Cited by Mayor

Bell Gardens Mayor David Torres, a councilman named to the largely ceremonial position, defends the salary, saying most council members put in at least eight hours a day on city business, even though the position is technically a part-time one. Torres said he currently does not have any other job.

He said the council increased the salaries in May 1997, when it launched a revitalization plan and realized that additional meetings with builders and the public would require a full-time council commitment. The key project is a $20-million entertainment and retail development proposed for the corner of Eastern and Florence avenues.

"There is a lot of work to be done here," he said.

Torres professed surprise when a reporter told him the size of his own car allowance.

"I didn't know it was that much," he said. "If I'd known, I would have voted to make it lower."

The pay hike, like so many issues in Bell Gardens, is part of a bitter political squabble between two factions.

The two council members who voted against the salary increase, Maria Chacon and Ramiro Morales, continue to criticize the council majority.

Chacon has repeatedly raised the issue during a recall campaign she launched against Torres and the other two council members who voted for the increase, Joaquin Penilla and Salvador Rios.

"I think that it's a robbery of the taxpayers," she said.

Chacon said she supports the efforts to revitalize the city but believes most of the work should be done by the paid staff, particularly City Manager Nabar Martinez, whose salary Chacon has also criticized.

Martinez, who has 20 years of experience in city management, earns a base salary of $139,000 per year, nearly 40% more than the statewide average for city managers, according to International City/County Management Assn., a national organization for local government officials.

Torres, in turn, criticizes Chacon for accepting the high salary that she repeatedly criticizes.

"Why doesn't she refuse the money?" he asked.

The mayor also defends the salary of Martinez, saying the city manager plays a key role in the revitalizing the city.

"I do know that he is a very hard worker," Torres said of Martinez.

Caught in the Cross-Fire

The feuding between Chacon and the council majority has permeated the entire government. Some city workers compare themselves to the children of divorced parents.

During the bickering, the two sides have rarely debated solutions to the city's social and economic woes.

Bell Gardens, which is 88% Latino, has a median household income of about $26,100, making it the fourth-poorest community in the county, according to 1998 income projections by Claritas Inc., a Virginia-based marketing data firm. The median household income in Los Angeles County is $40,300.

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