Reporting from Sacramento — State lawmakers offered a proposal Wednesday to allow refunds of excess property taxes to Bell's overcharged residents, but were divided over how far the state should go in the waning days of the legislative session to prevent cities from approving exorbitant salaries and benefits in the future.
Bell's interim city manager, Pedro Carrillo, and interim City Atty. Jamie Casso met behind closed doors with a dozen lawmakers in the state Capitol to brief them on their investigation into former city officials' salaries and other financial arrangements.
Carrillo welcomed the tax refund legislation but cautioned against a rush forward with other proposals, which he said might hurt cities. With 10 days left in the legislative session and half a dozen Bell-spawned bills on the table, some lawmakers are proposing to block overly generous employment contracts and require punitive sanctions for municipalities that approve excessive pay.
"There are a lot of things going on right now in the Legislature in a rush with the last 10 days to get legislation through," Carrillo said. "Our message to them was to be responsive and responsible."
Assemblyman Kevin de Leon (D- Los Angeles) said in an interview that lawmakers should not "throw the baby out with the bath water."
"We want to make sure we don't move forward legislation that looks good, but at the end of the day does nothing to really address what took place in the city of Bell," said De Leon, who introduced the tax refund bill Wednesday at Carrillo's request. "We can't run on emotion."
His legislation would allow about $2.9 million to be restored to the owners of 4,000 properties in Bell. The state controller has concluded that Bell officials illegally raised property taxes in 2007 to cover rising pension costs for its employees.
"Returning the ill-gotten property tax payments to the residents of Bell is one thing we can do to reverse the harm brought upon them by their disgraced city leaders," said state Sen. Ron Calderon (D-Montebello), a coauthor of the bill, AB 900.
If the Legislature approves the measure before its session ends Aug. 31, and if it is signed by the governor, property owners could get refunds next month. The governor has not taken a public position on the measure.
Other proposals would change the way city officials' compensation is set and crack down on those who misuse taxpayer money.
Assembly Speaker John Perez (D-Los Angeles) and Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg (D- Sacramento) on Wednesday announced their support for a package of Bell-related bills, including:
—A measure that would ban employment contracts that include automatic extension clauses and built-in pay raises higher than the cost-of-living index, as well as severance that pays more than 12 months' salary (AB 827, by Democratic Assemblyman Hector De La Torre of South Gate);
—A measure that would require the Legislature to annually post on its website the salaries of all lawmakers and their employees (AB 2064 by Democratic Assemblywoman Alyson Huber of El Dorado Hills);
—A bill that would require any city that seeks to lure an employee from another municipality by offering an exorbitant raise to pay for the higher pension payments that come with the raise (AB 192 by Democratic Assemblyman Mike Gatto of Los Angeles);
—A proposal to put a 50% income tax on excessive salaries paid to city council members and to block cities from using bonds and redevelopment programs if they are deemed to be paying too much to their city council members (AB 1955, by De la Torre).
AB 1955 passed the Senate Local Government Committee last week despite opposition from Sen. Sam Aanestad (R-Grass Valley), who said he was uncomfortable approving such a complicated bill still being fleshed out so late in the session.
Assemblyman Tony Mendoza (D-Artesia), who called Wednesday's meeting with Bell managers, urged his colleagues not to rush major changes in policy before the completion of the multiple Bell investigations that are underway.
"Do you really want to do it in 10 days, or do you want to wait until the investigation is over so you can make a more informed decision?" Mendoza asked.
De La Torre opposes any delay. Term limits prevented him from running for reelection, and he will not be back for the next session to resume the discussion, said his spokeswoman, Hilda Delgado.