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Bell voters OKd bonds for sports complex that remains unbuilt

The $70-million bond proposal in 2003 also promised an expanded civic center and a new library, performing arts theater and public safety center. There's little to show despite expenditures of up to $26.5 million.

April 29, 2011|By Paloma Esquivel, Los Angeles Times
  • The proposed location of a state-of-the-art sports complex is nothing but an empty field.
The proposed location of a state-of-the-art sports complex is nothing… (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)

When Bell voters approved Measure A in 2003, the $70-million bond proposal promised great things for the working-class city.

The money would build a state-of-the-art complex for baseball and soccer, and a new practice space for the Bell Sapphires, its award-winning cheerleading team. The city would expand its civic center, improve its parks and build a new library, performing arts theater, public safety center and more.

"Now is the time to continue Bell's transformation into the southeast's finest community," read the ballot argument.

More than seven years later, there is little to show despite expenditures of up to $26.5 million.

The interim city officials who last year took charge of day-to-day operations in Bell say they can find no actual plans for a new library, public safety center or expanded civic center.

Although millions of dollars have been spent on things such as design, site preparation and fencing, the sports complex is no more than a fenced-in plot of weeds and dirt — "the mud pit," as one man who lives across the street calls it.

Officials now say the complex will probably never be built.

Millions were spent on projects at the city's existing parks with little oversight, including tens of thousands in added salaries for former City Administrator Robert Rizzo and former Director of Community Services Annette Peretz.

Some of the money went to a company that was remodeling Rizzo's home at the same time it was working on park projects, according to construction permits and city records.

In a community of 36,000 residents still trying to rebuild from a scandal in which eight former city leaders are charged with looting the treasury, the saga of the park bond is a lasting disappointment.

Out of the $70 million approved in Measure A, the city actually sold $50 million in bonds.

Out of that sum, about $23.5 million remains unused in a non-interest-bearing checking account formerly controlled by Rizzo, according to a report by the state controller.

In the wake of the scandal, Bell faces possible insolvency and has talked about eliminating its parks and recreations programs to pay down its projected deficit.

The city may have to raise taxes to pay off its bond debt for the ill-fated sports project.

The sports complex was pitched to voters as a boon to families in a city where parents had long complained about a lack of after-school activities. Measure A was overwhelmingly approved by the 933 voters who cast ballots.

But records and interviews show that the majority of the money went to projects other than the complex.

More than $8.6 million was spent to build Camp Little Bear Park, a 1.4-acre children's park behind a convenience store owned by former Mayor Oscar Hernandez. The park includes a playground, a small soccer field for children and a lodge for indoor activities.

Bell also built a skate park across from City Hall for $1.24 million and made $2 million in improvements over the last eight years at Veterans' Memorial Park. But city officials said the park's playground area remains in disrepair and is potentially hazardous.

About $35,000 was paid to Rizzo, ostensibly for oversight of the sports complex project. Peretz was paid $9,200, also for oversight.

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Bell spent more than $3 million acquiring land and designing the sports complex. But over the years, the city repeatedly changed the concept.

The property the city purchased was next to land Bell already owned that housed a baseball field. For a while, the new park was to feature an upgraded field. Then that was dropped. A large indoor center was considered but then scaled down. Eventually, the city agreed on a sprawling plaza dubbed Rancho San Antonio Plaza.

In his Downey studio, sculptor Eleazar Martinez said he has the beginnings of a bronze sculpture the city commissioned for the sports complex. It features a mother, father and their children, one of them wearing a cheerleading uniform.

Another sculpture of a family ringing a mission-style bell is just a scale model. Both works were to be displayed at the plaza. Martinez was paid more than $60,000 for the work but since the scandals broke last year, he's stopped as he waits for direction from the city.

Some of the bond money went to two companies connected with Rizzo. Both firms appeared to get the work without contracts, according to a review of records.

More than $1.36 million was paid to McCullah Fence Co., based in Bell Gardens, mostly for installing, reinstalling and removing fences at four small to medium-size parks in the city. During part of that time, the company was remodeling Rizzo's Huntington Beach home.

Rizzo's attorney, James Spertus, said Rizzo paid for the remodeling work with his own money.

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