Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado on Monday signed into law a bill that will refund $2.9 million to Bell property owners who paid an illegal tax the last three years to cover rising pension costs.
To many who had gathered to watch the bill signing, it marked one more step in the retaking of their city from an administration that had seemed more interested in enriching itself.
"Lo logramos, lo logramos! [We did it, we did it!]," longtime Bell activist Carmen Bella shouted in Spanish, pumping her left arm in the air.
The owner of a property assessed at $275,000 should expect a refund of $577.50, according to the office of state Controller John Chiang, whose auditors discovered the illegal levy.
Until it was rescinded, Bell's property tax was the second-highest among Los Angeles County's 88 cities.
Maldonado, serving as acting governor while Arnold Schwarzenegger is in Asia, took the bill signing as an opportunity to bash the leadership of the predominantly working-class city.
The money was being refunded "because it was taken illegally by the City Council, who thought they were above the law," he said. "We're here to say, 'No, you're not.'"
The bill to refund the money to Bell's 4,000 property owners was written by Assemblyman Kevin De Leon (D-Los Angeles) after lobbying by Bell's interim city manager, Pedro Carrillo, and interim city attorney, Jaime Casso. Without the bill, the refund would have gone to the city's schools.
De Leon said the tax was "immoral, it was disgusting, and it was just plain corrupt."
Behind Maldonado and De Leon were many of the Bell activists behind the effort to recall the five council members. Lorenzo Velez, standing among the activists, was the only panel member to appear at the signing.
De Leon said the refunds will be sent automatically and no one will have to apply for them. He said he hoped the checks could be mailed within a week.
Bell has been in the national headlines since The Times reported that City Administrative Officer Robert Rizzo was being paid nearly $800,000 a year and its council members were receiving nearly $100,000 annually for their part-time service.
The state attorney general, Los Angeles County's district attorney and the U.S. Justice Department are all investigating the city.
This may not be the only illegal tax foisted upon Bell residents. In a letter to the city, Chiang said property owners overpaid the city $621,737, about $20 a parcel, each of the last three years. He said voters never approved it.
Times staff writer Ruben Vives contributed to this report.