For years residents of Bell, Calif., suspected something fishy might be going on at city hall. Property tax rates increased in the poor suburb south of Los Angeles, rising high above those paid by homeowners in wealthier neighborhoods like Beverly Hills and Malibu.
Residents also noticed some civil servants started making big purchases, such as beachfront homes. But when residents asked questions, they say, they got the runaround from city officials.
For good reason, it appears. Turns out several city leaders were living large at taxpayer expense, with one official topping out at nearly $800,000 annually, not counting benefits.
To run a city with fewer than 40,000 residents, City Administrative Officer Robert Rizzo took home $787,637—nearly twice the U.S. president’s salary—according to documents obtained by the Los Angeles Times. The Bell police chief earned $457,000, and most members of the City Council—who approved the salaries, including their own—pocketed nearly $100,000 for their part-time positions.
The salaries, which are believed to be some of the highest in the country for such government positions, shocked residents in a city where the median household income is $38,500 a year.
“What were they thinking?” says Cristina Garcia, 32, one of the organizers of the grassroots Bell Association to Stop the Abuse, which recently attracted more than 2,000 outraged residents to a City Council meeting. “Whatever system they were using to make decisions was not in the interest of the community.”
Since news of the salaries became public in mid-July, three officials have resigned and City Council members voted to cut their own pay. The mayor said he will not seek reelection.
Meanwhile, the state attorney general and the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office are investigating the situation.
“These outrageous pay practices are an insult to the hard-working people of Bell and have provoked righteous indignation in California and even across the country,” says California Attorney General Jerry Brown. “I’m determined to get to the bottom of these exorbitant payouts and protect the state’s pension system against such abuses.”
But the bleeding likely won’t stop for a long time. The officials who resigned may still be eligible for pension benefits for many years to come, payments that could be at least $600,000 annually for former city administrator Rizzo alone. And Bell residents, as well as taxpayers in 140 small cities and special districts that are in the same pension liability pool, will be on the hook to pay the pensions.
Michelle Diament is a frequent contributor to the AARP Bulletin.