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Huge checks won't end with Bell officials' ouster

When he steps down, City Manager Robert Rizzo will get at least $600,000 a year in pension checks, making him the highest-paid retiree in the state. The police chief will get more than $411,000.

July 22, 2010|By Catherine Saillant and Jeff Gottlieb, Los Angeles Times

Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo, whose nearly $800,000-a-year salary has ignited community protests and calls for his resignation, will become the highest-paid retiree in California's pension system when he steps down.

Rizzo, whose forced-resignation could come as early as Thursday, would be entitled to a pension of at least $600,000 a year for the rest of his life, according to retirement calculations made by The Times and reviewed by pension experts.

That would make him the highest-paid retiree in CalPERS, outstripping the $509,664 paid each year to Vernon's former city manager Bruce Malkenhorst Sr.

Not far behind would be Randy Adams, the man Rizzo hired as Bell police chief last July. If Adams steps down, his pension would be worth an estimated $411,300, placing him just behind Malkenhorst on the list of top CalPERS beneficiaries.

Taking the Bell job was a good career move for Adams, 59. In just one year on the payroll, he more than doubled his retirement pay.

As debate over public-sector pensions takes center stage this election year, with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and other leaders pushing for reductions at the state and local levels, the potential pension checks waiting for Bell's embattled leaders have taken even veteran pension watchers by surprise.

"It's outrageous and unsustainable," said pension-reform advocate Marcia Fritz, noting that Rizzo, 55, could receive $26 million in pension income if he lives a normal life span. "High salaries last just a few years — high pensions last for a lifetime."

Estimating a pension for Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia, 51, is trickier — she has worked in several different public agencies and won't be eligible for full retirement until she's 55. But by conservative estimates, her retirement pay could reach as high as $250,000 a year.

Rizzo, Adams and Spaccia did not return phone calls Wednesday regarding their projected pension benefits.

Bell City Council members are seeking the officials' resignations amid a public outcry over salaries that appear to be among the highest in the nation, according to sources close to the discussions with the administrators. The council called a special meeting for Thursday afternoon and may announce the resignations then.

Rizzo earns nearly $800,000 a year, making him the highest-paid city manager in California. Adams makes $457,000 — 50% more than Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck. And Spaccia earns $376,288, more than the top administrator for Los Angeles County.

The salaries, first reported by The Times last week, have triggered protest in the small, working-class city southeast of downtown Los Angeles. Cristina Garcia, who grew up in Bell and is part of a newly formed citizen's group, said fat pensions are another insult to city residents.

"It's unethical and immoral, that's obvious," she said. "What's amazing is that it is all legal."

The California Public Employees Retirement System administers pensions for most cities in California, including Bell. A spokesman, citing confidentiality laws, said he couldn't provide information on Rizzo's and Adams' estimated retirement income because they are still active employees.

But a pension expert at CalPERS, who asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to discuss retirement figures for workers who are still employed, agreed that The Times' calculations were "within the ballpark" of what Rizzo and Adams would earn.

Fritz, a certified public accountant, said her calculations show that pension checks could grow even higher if the managers cash out a number of perks available to them.

Rizzo, for instance, could add unused vacation pay to boost his final year's salary — one of the factors used to determine a pension. Bell employees are also entitled to buy up to five years of service credit for years they did not actually work, said Fritz, president of the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility, a pension reform group.

Fritz sees a conflict of interest in the way salaries and benefits are set in government because managers such as Rizzo typically get the same deal offered to rank-and-file workers. In 2007, the Bell City Council approved a new pension formula that gave Rizzo a 35% increase in his payout.

"They are negotiating on behalf of the taxpayer and are directly benefiting from those increases," she said.

Like most governments, Bell bases retirement pay on a formula that includes years of service, age and final pay. Rizzo worked in Rancho Cucamonga and Hesperia before arriving in Bell in 1993, giving him 31 years in the CalPERS system.

Adams had 37 years in law enforcement under his belt when he stepped down from his $215,304-a-year chief's job in Glendale last summer. If he had retired then, his pension check would have been about $194,000 a year. But the Bell job, with its huge salary increase, more than doubled his estimated retirement pay.

Bell paid Rizzo's share of pension contributions and also covered his Social Security payments. Adams' contract calls for the same deal, plus lifetime health, dental and vision benefits for him and his wife.

City Council members are vested in the plan after five years. Retired Councilman George Cole, who served on the council for 24 years, receives $49,890 a year. Rizzo had said that after 10 years, a council member would receive a pension of about $20,000 a year.

catherine.saillant@latimes.com

jeff.gottlieb@latimes.com

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