Rents rose as problems lingered at trailer park operated by L.A. County Fair Assn.

Day and night, the stench of raw sewage wafted through the aging trailer park in Pomona.

The odor billowed from scores of uncapped pipes that empty the waste tanks underneath the trailers.

"Any time anybody flushes their sewage out of their tanks, you smell it," said Dave Smith, 62, who has lived in the park for three years. "If ever you smelled it, you don't forget it."

The trailer park sits on the Los Angeles County fairgrounds and is managed by the county Fair Assn., a nonprofit organization that operates the annual fair and several year-round businesses on land owned by taxpayers.

Residents said the open sewer pipes were symptomatic of the association's neglect and mismanagement of the 160-space trailer park, which sits near old horse barns at the fairgrounds, known as the Fairplex. The trailer park was established decades ago primarily to house people who worked at the Fairplex's thoroughbred racetrack, which is now closed. Tenants with no ties to the fairground also eventually made the park their home.

The current residents complained of bathrooms in disrepair, a laundry room that has been shuttered, overhead power lines peeling insulation, and roads and walkways marked by potholes and cracked pavement.

At the same time, the Fair Assn. has imposed regular rent increases and had for years improperly collected from residents a "transient occupancy" tax, the same levied on hotel guests. The tax amounted to 10% of the monthly rent for trailer spaces, which now typically go for about $500. It was unclear how long the tax had been collected, but some residents say they have been paying it for up to 10 years or more.

The association's finances and operations have come under scrutiny by government auditors and others after a Times investigation that revealed lucrative pay and benefit packages given to its top executives. Chief Executive James Henwood Jr., 69, received more than $1 million in total compensation in 2014, the most recent year for which figures are available from the association's federal tax filings.

Association representatives said they had not devoted enough attention to problems at the trailer park and were addressing them. Regarding the taxes, they said the money was delivered to the city of Pomona and the association did not benefit from the revenue.

The city refunded a year's worth of the tax money — about $46,000 to 95 people — and blamed the association for the improper collections. Pomona officials learned of the problem after a resident questioned the legitimacy of the tax. Deputy City Manager Mark Gluba declined to disclose how much money was collected in previous years, saying the information was confidential. The fair organization said it was not its responsibility to reimburse the tenants.

City Council members disagree on a solution for the residents. "If the Fairplex did the right thing, they would refund all the money," Councilwoman Paula Lantz said.

But Councilwoman Debra Martin said the Fair Assn. owes the residents nothing and a Pomona ordinance prohibits the city from returning more than a year in payments. "Unfortunately, for the residents, that's the law," Martin said.

"That's money out of my pocket," said resident Dorothy Feldscher, 83, a retired cashier who estimated she is owed about $5,000 collected over the decade she has lived there — money that would help her afford medicine she needs after a stroke. "I am on Social Security. I deserve to get this money back."

Some tenants filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles County Superior Court seeking full reimbursement from the Fair Assn. The suit is pending.

The association raised rents in January at the trailer park by 8%, wiping out most of what the residents had gained from the elimination of the tax. Henwood said the higher rents reflected market conditions. "We haven't had increases in I don't know how many years," he said.

After The Times produced documentation of six rent increases over the last eight years, the association acknowledged seven occurred and released a schedule showing they totaled 33% in that period.

Association spokeswoman Renee Hernandez said the latest increase would "cover many of the maintenance and improvement needs of the park."

Henwood said he regretted that problems, such as the open sewer pipes, went unresolved for so long. The association installed new caps shortly after The Times inquired about the situation with state officials. A reporter had counted about 80 open pipes, some of which residents had tried to seal with cinder blocks, soda bottles and chunks of asphalt.

Tenants said the peeling power lines were part of a bigger problem, and past surges have ignited electrical boxes and destroyed appliances. Hernandez said the fair association plans to upgrade the electrical system in the coming weeks.

The communal bathrooms were refurbished last year after a complaint filed with the California Department of Housing and Community Development cited a broken window, a hole in the floor, no shower curtains, no soap and no hot water.

Evan Gerberding, a spokeswoman for the state housing agency, said it had received a complaint about the sewer pipes about 13 months ago but took no action. "That shouldn't have happened," she said.

After Times inquiries about the matter, state officials said the open sewer pipes created a potential health hazard and requested that the Fair Assn. make repairs. State officials also determined that the trailer park was not properly registered. The Fair Assn. was ordered to pay more than $42,000 in penalties and registration fees that had not been paid since 1987.

In addition to collecting rents, the association has used the trailer park to raise money for construction of a convention center it operates at the Fairplex. Seven years ago, the city of Pomona gave the association $3.3 million to help build the $28-million convention center in exchange for preserving 50 of the 160 trailer spots for low- and moderate-income housing for 55 years.

The deal required the association to maintain the trailer park "in good, sanitary and tenantable condition."

Some park residents say the association hasn't lived up to its side of the deal.

"The $3.3 million they had? We've never seen it over here," said Ellen McKeever-Jacobs, 57, who has lived there for more than 15 years. Until the recent upgrades, she said, "they did nothing here."

Mike Dubrawsky, 61, said the county Board of Supervisors should demand that the association take better care of the trailer park. The association runs the park and its other businesses at the Fairplex under a lease with the county.

"I just want them to do the right thing," Dubrawsky said.

County Supervisor Hilda Solis, whose district includes the Fairplex, did not respond to requests for comment.

Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, who called for the ongoing county audit of the association, was "very concerned" about the trailer park, spokesman Tony Bell said.

"We are looking into it and asking for answers," Bell said.

Hoy: Léa esta historia en español 

ron.lin@latimes.com

@ronlin

paul.pringle@latimes.com

@PringleLATimes

Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on March 18, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "UNHAPPY IN POMONA - Trailer park blues - Rents rose as problems lingered at site run by L.A. County Fair Assn." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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