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Those sweet Bell retirements may cost you too

A pension reform activist says that since Bell is pooled with 140 similar-size California towns and public entities, their taxes will help support the three high-priced officials who have resigned.

July 25, 2010|Steve Lopez

The sad reality, dear Californian, is that depending on where you live, you may be personally contributing to the insultingly fat pension of ousted Bell city administrator Robert "Ratso" Rizzo.

And if the estimates of pension reform advocate Marcia Fritz of Sacramento are accurate, the 55-year-old Rizzo's bloated $787,637 salary could translate into even more than an earlier guess of $600,000 a year.

"I estimate the pension will be $710,000," said Fritz, an accountant. That alone would add up to more than $14 million if Rizzo lives to 75. But Fritz says that on top of his pension and other benefits — are you ready for this, folks? — Rizzo will collect a monthly Social Security check and get cost of living increases in his pension.

Now that Ratso has resigned, I'm applying for his job immediately.

Fritz, of the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility, said Bell is pooled with 140 similarly sized California towns and public entities like water and sanitation districts, and together their taxes will be used to support Rizzo in the style to which Bell got him accustomed. Assuming she's right — a spokesperson for the California Public Employees Retirement System said the agency is still trying to unravel the Bell situation and wouldn't be able to confirm Fritz's analysis until Monday — that could spell trouble for a lot of innocent towns.

Barstow? Congratulations. If Rizzo wants caviar on his crackers, you'll help pick up the tab. You too, San Gabriel, La Cañada Flintridge, Imperial Beach and El Cerrito. And the same goes for taxpayers in Norco, Yucca Valley, the Goleta Water District and the Big Bear Regional Wastewater Agency.

You'll all be helping "Bobby the Rat" Rizzo pay the mortgage on his nifty horse ranch in Washington state — where I have to believe the thoroughbreds will be dining on fresh arugula and Evian — and his sprawling digs a few blocks from the water's edge in Huntington Beach.

I went to the latter location Thursday for a first-hand look at the good life, but Rizzo wasn't home. I did, however, bump into his next-door neighbor, Mike O'Brien, an unemployed convention planner.

"I wish I would have known him better," said O'Brien. "Maybe I could have gotten a job in Bell."

O'Brien said that Rizzo — who was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence in March after allegedly plowing into a neighbor's mailbox — moved in a couple of years ago but hasn't been around lately.

Maybe he's already riding off into the sunset with a smile on his face. The same might be said for the assistant city manager, who made $376,288, and the police chief, who made $457,000. They were forced to retire last week along with Rizzo after a head-smacking expose by Times scribes Ruben Vives and Jeff Gottlieb, but they'll be in high cotton too with big pensions.

Fritz said a huge end-of-career spike like the one Police Chief Randy Adams got in Bell means his pension will be based on his final pay, and it will be covered in greater proportion by residents of Glendale, where he spent the bulk of his career.

Congratulations, Glendale.

Who would have thought you could bring back that old TV series "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" and base it entirely on public servants in a blue-collar burg like Bell, population 37,000, where the chief industry is survival?

O'Brien told me he knew Rizzo was "living pretty well" when the city executive bought his house a few years ago and spent roughly a year on a huge remodeling project.

"I figured he had some family money or had made some wise investments," said O'Brien, who told me Rizzo drives a Cadillac and his wife drives a BMW. "The thing I object to more than anything is the public pension program. People are looting the pension program when, for the private individual, pensions went away years ago."

Hear, hear. And let's not forget that the state and many cities are in the poorhouse.

Fritz told me she likes aspects of the pension reform proposals by gubernatorial candidates Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown, but they would apply only to state employees — not municipal ones. Fritz said a city council can reform its employee retirement system, and if it refuses, a citizen uprising can put the matter before voters.

The uprising has already begun, said Rocio Lopez, a Bell resident and member of the Bell Assn. to Stop the Abuse.

"We have to take back City Hall," she said, echoing a demand that four of the five council members resign from posts that pay them roughly $100,000 a year for part-time work, an arrangement the D.A.'s office is looking into.

As I wrote on Wednesday, there's a long history of corruption in southeastern L.A. County, with city officials acting like dictators, withholding information from the public and exploiting largely poor, immigrant residents, many of whom aren't citizens and can't vote.

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