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Bell officials cut police pensions while boosting their own

Under a two-tiered system approved in 2006, newly hired officers had to work until the age of 55, rather than 50.

October 02, 2010|By Jeff Gottlieb, Los Angeles Times

As Bell provided record high pensions for Robert Rizzo and 40 other officials, the city cut the pensions for new police officers, claiming it could no longer afford their full retirement benefits.

Rizzo, the longtime Bell city manager who was charged with public corruption last week stands to receive an annual pension of an estimated $1 million thanks to major enhancement the City Council approved beginning in 2003.

But three years later, the city created a two-tiered pension system for Bell police officers, with officers hired after that year receiving less generous pensions than other police employees.

Before the change, Bell police officers were eligible to receive their full pension at the age of 50, which has traditionally been the model for police officers and firefighters in the state. They usually receive higher pensions at a younger age in recognition of the danger and physical demands of their jobs.

Under Bell's two-tier system, officers hired after 2006 must work to the age of 55 to receive their full pensions, according to the memorandum of understanding negotiated between the Bell police union and the city.

Bell police officers said they didn't know that Rizzo and the 40 other officials were receiving a supplemental pension plan on top of their regular pensions until The Times reported it Wednesday.

"We all feel deceived," said Police Sgt. Albert Rusas, who was a leader of the Bell Police Officers Assn. when the police labor deal was negotiated. "We feel we were treated as less than employees by a man who had nothing but greed running through his veins."

Others at the Police Department said the revelations are just the latest blow to a city already reeling from the salary scandals that led to criminal charges against eight former and current city officials.

"It's par for the course," said Capt. Anthony Miranda, who is not a union member. Officers"feel completely betrayed and shocked because they acted in good faith and this guy was lying to us, negotiating in bad faith. We come to find out Rizzo was upping his own ante and lowering ours."

The enhanced pensions received by the 41 officials — including many City Council members — were paid for entirely by Bell tax funds, allowing the city to circumvent retirement limits set by California's state retirement fund. The changes, which created a supplemental pension plan for those officials, increased the size of their pensions by as much as 85%.

When the first increase to the pensions were made in 2003, Rizzo wrote in a memo that "The new plan has been designed to provide you with retirement benefits similar to that of our Public Safety represented employees."

The City Council approved a second increase in the pensions of the 41 officials in 2007, placing their benefits well above police.

Meanwhile, the handful of new police officers hired at the 32-officer department received the lesser benefits package.

Many at the department feel betrayed by Rizzo.

"I remember specifically during those negotiations when Rizzo told the [Bell Police Officers Assn.] that the city could not afford [the police pensions], so we did the responsible thing and reformed our pension," Sgt. Art Jimenez said.

After The Times revealed the enhanced pension plan, Bell's Interim Chief Administrative Officer Pedro Carrillo said he would push to end it.

But the hefty pension has worsened the city's financial problems. In 2007, the Bell City Council increased the city's "retirement tax" rate to cover rising pension costs. Last month, the state controller said the levy had been increased illegally and ordered Bell to refund $2.9 million and roll back the tax.

The supplemental pension costs Bell $600,000 to $650,000 a year. Even before the state deemed the 2007 retirement tax illegal, the city's overall retirement fund had been running at a deficit for the last seven years, reaching $1.2 million last year.

Gilbert Jara, president of the police union, said officers, currently working without a contract, have not received a raise in three years.

"There's not much we can do at this point because now the city is really in a financial crisis," he said. "We don't want to make the situation worse by crying and asking for more. We've been told over and over there's no money yet we find out about all these outrageous salaries."

Rizzo and other Bell officials stepped down in July after The Times revealed their salaries. Rizzo earned nearly $800,000 a year, making him one of the highest-paid city leaders in the nation. Some have complained that top city officials were getting hefty pay at a time when Bell was making cuts at the Police Department.

Capt. Anthony Miranda said that he joined the department in 1991, the department had 45 sworn officers and 26 civilians as support staff. Today there are 32 sworn officers and 12 support staff.

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