For years she picked up trash, tidied picnic tables, manned the snack bar and set up park events for the city of Bell. Rosario Torres' $9-an-hour job came with no benefits, but it helped support her family of seven. When she was laid off in 2008, she applied for another city job but never heard back.
Now, reports that Bell city officials are among the most highly compensated municipal employees in the nation has left Torres disgusted. The 36-year-old said she cannot fathom how the city manager earns nearly $800,000 in the same tiny working-class town where she struggles to find employment.
"They said there was no budget for me," Torres said Thursday afternoon, sitting with her children at one of the parks she used to clean. "Now I can't pay my bills. I only pay for water, gas and electricity, and those are late. I'm angry. There need to be changes; they need to find jobs for people here."
The Times reported Thursday that Chief Administrative Officer Robert Rizzo earns nearly twice the salary of President Obama, Police Chief Randy Adams about 50% more than Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck and Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia more than the chief executive for Los Angeles County.
Rizzo was unapologetic, saying he could earn just as much in private business. Several council members said Rizzo had saved the city from near bankruptcy and was worth every penny of his salary.
A community of 36,000, Bell is predominantly Latino, its ethnic roots evident in the markets and panaderias that line its main thoroughfares. Mom-and-pop auto businesses, coin laundries and beauty salons dot the city, located southeast of downtown, where the Los Angeles River cuts beneath the 710 Freeway.
Here, the notion of six-figure incomes contrasts sharply with modest neighborhoods of simple one-story homes and worn-out, littered strip malls. The median income is about $40,000, and 65% of residents over 25 do not have a high school diploma. Many said they were forced to look for jobs in neighboring cities or get by on part-time work.
"It's a blue-collar city. A lot of people are just trying to make ends meet," said Bell resident Victor Munoz, who said he was laid off from his telecommunications job last year and is now taking pharmacy technician classes.
Munoz, 42, has lived in the area for decades and says the immigrant community is largely unaware of what happens at City Hall.
"They don't know or they don't understand it," he said. "Because of the language barrier or their schooling, they don't always comprehend what's going on."
Bell is being investigated by the Los Angeles County district attorney over the compensation of its City Council members, who receive about $100,000 a year for their part-time positions. In a city the size of Bell, a council member is typically paid about $400 a month, according to state records.
Assemblyman Hector De La Torre (D-South Gate), who wrote a 2005 bill that limited some city council salaries, expressed outrage over the salaries of Bell's top administrators.
"The president of the United States and other public servants who oversee much more complicated and sophisticated operations make much less than these city officials," he said. "I think that makes it really clear these salaries are overdone."
The City Council, he said, "is completely avoiding their fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayer."
Bell city employees are tight-lipped, saying they're not allowed to speak about the subject, and employees of a grocery owned by Mayor Oscar Hernandez asked a reporter to leave.
Residents, however, have no problem expressing what they think about their city's budget, which pays the police chief — who oversees a 46-person department — $457,000 a year. By contrast, Los Angeles' police chief oversees 12,899 people and earns $307,000.
Maricela Morales, a single mother of three who works as a medical assistant at a clinic, said the news about her city was disheartening at a time when she was seeking a second job to help make the rent. "That is too much for them," she said. "And I wonder how I'm going to support my children."
Christian Andrade, 32, who earns $10 an hour as a waiter at a Mexican restaurant, said that he often worried about making the out-of-pocket health insurance payments for his wife and himself, and that lately he had sensed more crime in his neighborhood. As he left a laundromat with a bag of clothes over his shoulder, he shook his head at the Times front page that illustrated the steep climb of Rizzo's salary to $787,637 over more than a decade.
"If you're making that much money," Andrade said, "it should be a better city."
Times staff writer Jeff Gottlieb contributed to this report.