Bell City Council looking into refunding $3 million in property taxes

The Bell City Council tonight will explore if it can legally refund about $3 million in property taxes that were illegally overcharged to property owners over the past three years, an overcharge that helped fund exorbitant salaries for some of the very same elected officials.

The scandal-torn city's interim city manager, Pedro Carrillo, said he has taken "swift and decisive action to right this wrong and ensure that Bell homeowners see an immediate reduction in property taxes."

State controller John Chiang on Friday announced that $3 million had been raised in illegal tax levies, but said the money cannot be immediately refunded to taxpayers, and instead must be transferred to local schools.

Members of BASTA, a reform group backed by city police officers, have asked state legislators to change laws to allow the overcharges to be refunded immediately. Carrillo said Friday that such refunds might be possible without state action, and said the city council will discuss such an action tonight.

Last week, Chiang directed tax collectors to lower the city's tax rate and said the city council had illegally raised taxes to an improper rate to cover pension costs for city employees higher than allowed by state law.

In a statement Saturday, BASTA demanded that four additional administrators in the small, gritty city southeast of Los Angeles resign. It targeted Director of Administrative Services Lourdes Garcia, Community Services Director Annette Peretz, General Services Director Eric Eggena and Business Development Coordinator Ricardo Gonzalez.

BASTA stands for the Bell Association to Stop The Abuse, and the acronym means "enough" in Spanish.

Several law enforcement investigations are underway into the City of Bell's finances. The city found itself in the national spotlight when the Los Angeles Times reported that some top city officials were making exorbitant salaries. City Manager Robert Rizzo was being paid an annual salary of $787,637; Police Chief Randy Adams, $457,000; and Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia, $376,000.

Rizzo, Adams and Spaccia have resigned in the uproar that rose when The Times printed those salaries. The paper also revealed that Bell's mayor and three of the city's four council members were being paid $97,000 for their part- time jobs.

The mayor and council members agreed to reduce their salaries, but refused to heed their outraged constituents' calls to step down.

According to Chiang, state law caps the property tax rate for pension obligations at the rate used in fiscal year 1983-84. But residents of Bell saw their property tax obligation increase from 0.187554 percent in 2007 to 0.277554 percent this year, he said.