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Bell city official threatens to cut budget if council doesn't meet

Interim City Administrator Pedro Carrillo says the city has been unable to make the cuts needed to stave off insolvency because the Bell council has met only three times in the last five months.

February 03, 2011|By Jeff Gottlieb, Los Angeles Times
  • Bell interim City Administrator Pedro Carrillo, center, says his goal is to reduce expenses enough to keep the city going until the March election, when a new City Council will be chosen. The city faces a potential deficit of $3.5 million to $4.5 million.
Bell interim City Administrator Pedro Carrillo, center, says his goal… (Christina House / For the…)

Bell could have problems paying its bills as early as May and has been unable to make budget cuts to stave off insolvency because City Council members who face criminal charges repeatedly have failed to show up for meetings.

Now, Bell's interim city administrator, Pedro Carrillo, says he is prepared to make deep budget cuts to preserve cash.

The city faces a potential deficit of $3.5 million to $4.5 million, Carrillo said, and has defaulted on a $35-million bond. The scandal-plagued city southeast of downtown Los Angeles has struggled to deal with its financial crisis in part because the council has met only three times in the last five months.

Carrillo had hoped that the council would approve budget cuts last week, but that meeting was canceled when Oscar Hernandez and Teresa Jacobo called in sick. Since then, Carrillo and interim City Atty. Jamie Casso have determined that Carrillo has the authority to trim the budget if the council is idle. Carrillo's goal would be to reduce expenses enough to keep the city going until the March elections, when a new council will be chosen.

"I can't scream any louder," Carrillo said. "You all have to make some tough choices and get moving. The city attorney and I have an emergency plan to deal with our shortcomings if the council does not take action."

In the last six months, Carrillo has trimmed the city's $14-million budget by $3.8 million. The number of full-time employees has dropped 16%, from 82 to 69. Nonetheless, the city's reserves are down to $300,000, he said.

Carrillo would not discuss specifics, but he said he has the authority to reduce salaries and lay off employees unprotected by union contracts. The most likely place for cuts would be the Police Department because it has remained largely untouched, he said. Although officers are represented by a union, Carrillo said, he could lay off 10 to 13 people in the department's administration.

Other cuts could mean a reduction in municipal services and closing one of the small city's five parks, he said.

In his report to the council last week, Carrillo had laid out other choices for balancing the budget, including cutting retirement benefits, reducing salaries across the board, cutting city services and, his favored option, replacing the Police Department with Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies.

"The outsourcing of the Department may eliminate the City's entire deficit without having to make further cuts in any other department," Carrillo wrote.

In a city where high salaries and allegations of widespread corruption have generated national headlines, the council's inability to meet has generated more outrage. Municipal government experts said they could not recall a situation in which a city council couldn't or wouldn't meet — even in cases in which members faced criminal charges.

"Since the Great Depression there hasn't been a meltdown like this," said Rick Cole, city manager of Ventura and former mayor of Pasadena.

"I've never heard of people just not showing up," said Raphael Sonenshein, a political science professor at Cal State Fullerton. "This is such a colossal mess."

Four of the five council members who governed the city before the city's salary scandal erupted last summer have been charged with misappropriation of public funds. One, Luis Artiga, has resigned. Mayor Oscar Hernandez and council members Teresa Jacobo and George Mirabal remain on the panel.

Critics say the four helped drive Bell into its current mess by approving illegal taxes, giving themselves paychecks that reached nearly $100,000 a year and failing to watch over the city's finances. A preliminary hearing in the case is scheduled to begin Monday.

Hernandez and Jacobo have called in sick three times each since they were arrested in September. Carrillo said that after missing last Thursday's meeting, both gave him doctors' notes. They walked out of another meeting after speakers shouted at them.

Hernandez's attorney, Stanley L. Friedman, said that his client continues to contribute to the city and that it would be easier for him to resign.

"I don't know whether the unpleasantness of meetings contributes to his health problems, but it's certainly not helpful," Friedman said.

Jacobo's attorney, Daniel Nixon, did not return calls from The Times.

Jacobo's and Hernandez's absences have angered many Bell residents who wonder why they remain in office.

"They need to go," said Luz Moya, 38. "What's the point if you're not going to show up to the meetings to do your job?"

Artiga said he doesn't understand what Jacobo and Hernandez are doing.

"If you stay there, at least do your job or resign," he said. "We're talking about 40,000 people, and their affairs need to be paid."

After The Times last year revealed the high salaries earned by top Bell officials, the council reduced members' salaries to about $8,000. Hernandez is forgoing his paycheck. But council members continue to receive health benefits.

Assemblyman Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) said he was considering legislation to deal with the continued lack of a council quorum. But any legislation would not come in time to help Bell through its immediate crisis.

Carrillo has recommended to Hernandez, who sits as mayor, a position that rotates among council members, that the panel meet Monday—- the same day the preliminary hearing on the criminal charges is scheduled to begin.

Times staff writer Ruben Vives contributed to this report.

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