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Bell residents applaud state's reform bills

Legislation spurred by Bell salary scandal is headed to the governor's desk. The bills include restrictions on automatic pay raises, an end to pension spiking and refunds for high property taxes.

September 02, 2010|By Ruben Vives, Los Angeles Times

A day after California lawmakers passed wide-ranging public compensation reforms inspired by the Bell salary scandal, Hilda Villalpando felt hopeful for the first time in months.

"Unfortunately, our city has been labeled as one of the most corrupt cities and poorest," the 45-year-old resident said Wednesday. "But I want my city to be known as the city that led to reformation of the government."

Among the Bell-related reforms that lawmakers approved was a bill banning automatic pay raises that exceed the cost-of-living index built into the contracts of local government officials. The bill was written by Assemblyman Hector De La Torre, the former South Gate councilman who has been a sharp critic of the generous salaries paid to administrators and council members in Bell.

Lawmakers also approved a measure that would put an end to pension spiking, in which public employees save up sick time and vacation days until just before retirement to drive up their final year's salary, which is then used to calculate their pension allotment.

But the bill that may affect Bell the most, and the quickest, is one by Assemblyman Kevin De Leon (D- Los Angeles) that offers $2.9 million in property tax refunds to overcharged city residents.

"I'm so glad," said Yolanda Zambrano, a property owner. "It's our money, so we want it back."

Each bill now goes to the governor's desk for approval.

In July, The Times reported that while the residents of Bell had the second-highest property tax rate in Los Angeles County, three top city administrators and four council members had some of the highest salaries in the state.

That revelation, worsened by ongoing disclosures of loans to administrators and council members, led residents to march and rally at City Hall. Most demanded that the council and top administrators resign. Since then, City Administrator Robert Rizzo, Police Chief Randy Adams and Assistant City Administrator Angela Spaccia have stepped down.

Council members, four of whom had been drawing nearly $100,000 a year, reduced their pay by 90% and three said they are now serving without pay.

Emanuel Palacios, 64, who owns a one-bedroom house not far from City Hall, said he was very happy to learn he would be reimbursed for being overcharged on property taxes. Palacios said he was paying $2,000 in property taxes. At one point, he asked his 28-year-old son and 26-year-old daughter to help pay for the levy.

"I didn't want to sell the house," Palacios said. "I wanted to give the house to my children."

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