Montebello Lifts Utility Tax, Draws Rein on Staff's Expenses

Times Staff Writer

After a series of unusual votes caught even some colleagues by surprise, a new City Council majority--shuffled by last fall's municipal election--has begun to prove that the political pendulum over City Hall now swings in a decidedly more conservative direction.

The clearest sign of the times came April 14, when City Councilman Edward C. Pizzorno stuck to his campaign promise and won a sudden 3-2 vote to repeal a long-criticized utility users tax. Then, Pizzorno took advantage of his momentum to push through a trio of unexpected policy revisions.

Although the city enjoys a $1-million to $2-million budget surplus, Pizzorno persuaded a majority of his council colleagues to freeze city hiring and effectively take control of business meal and out-of-town travel decisions previously left to City Administrator Joseph M. Goeden.

Council Permission Required

Now, the council must give permission before Goeden can fill any of the city's 20 job vacancies or authorize meal and travel expenditures for staff members.

"My feeling was just to set a little different psychology" into the administration of city finances, Pizzorno said. "The council wants a little more control. . . . It's not a matter of trying to interfere with day-to-day operations."

But Councilman William O. Nighswonger--on the losing end of all four measures--said he suspects that the hiring freeze and expense crackdown are part of "an all-out effort to force Mr. Goeden to leave his job."

In separate interviews last week, however, Goeden and Pizzorno disagreed.

"I would have to respectfully disagree with Bill (Nighswonger)," said Goeden, who believes that he still has the council's support. "I think if they had a problem with me they would let me know. The things we're talking about are policy issues" that have nothing to do with his performance in carrying out the council's wishes. Goeden, 36, worked in city government eight years before becoming administrator in 1980.

"I think he (Goeden) responds to the council very well," Pizzorno said. "That's the No. 1 job of the city administrator, to respond to his council."

Pizzorno has been a longtime opponent of the utility users tax, which last year brought the city $1.5 million from assessments based on business and residential telephone, gas and electric service. (Residents usually paid from $30 to $50 annually, but a typical business could be assessed thousands of dollars.) When the tax was adopted in 1983 as a way to cope with a $1.7-million budget deficit, Pizzorno--a hardware store owner who had run unsuccessfully for the council four times starting in 1978--circulated recall petitions against the four members who approved it.

'Crusade' Against Tax

The recall efforts ultimately failed. But in last November's election, Pizzorno won office on the strength of what he described as a "crusade" to have the tax abolished. And at the same time, incumbent Phillip M. Ramos--a supporter of the tax--was also defeated. In the four months since, the council had discussed repeal only in general until Pizzorno unexpectedly called for a vote near the end of the April 14 session.

In agreement were Mayor Pro Tem William M. Molinari--the lone objector when the tax was passed in 1983--and Mayor Art Payan.

Opposed was Nighswonger, who described the repeal as "reckless, because nobody even bothered to ask the staff what the effect was. . . . There was no analysis put in front of me to see where it (the resulting revenue loss) would leave the city."

Councilman Arnold M. Glasman agreed, saying that he voted against repeal not because he particularly favors the tax, but because "I didn't have sufficient facts in front of me to make any decision." As an attorney in private life, Glasman said, "I go into court having to prove my case by evidence . . . not with hearsay and speculation."

Both councilmen said they would have preferred postponing the tax vote until city staff members, now in the midst of preparing next year's budget, had a chance to submit more revenue projections.

'Jumped the Gun'

"I think we would have seen the numbers justifying it (the repeal)," said Glasman, "but I think we jumped the gun."

Glasman, a new councilman elected with Pizzorno last fall, also joined Nighswonger on the losing side of a 3-2 hiring freeze vote. Glasman said that that measure seemed unnecessary in light of the city's good financial condition.

For the first time in more than a decade, Montebello has seen two consecutive years of operating budget surpluses. It holds about $10 million in reserve, although some of that is earmarked for future capital improvements. The city's general fund last year was about $16 million.

On the meal and travel measures, however, Glasman sided with Pizzorno's majority, saying that it is always "prudent" for a council member to keep watch over administrative expenses. But he also emphasized that, "I'm not at all unhappy with Joe Goeden."

"If part of (the majority's) larger plan is to put pressure on Joe Goeden," said Glasman, "it would come as a surprise to me."

Nighswonger criticized those votes, too, complaining that it was "insane" and "ridiculous" to expect council members to "participate in the detail of running the city." He said the council is supposed to simply set city policy and leave the execution to administrators. "I think we have a very capable staff to make those (meal and travel) decisions."

'Grandstand Play'

The restriction on expenses, the 18-year councilman said, "makes it sound like people are cheating and being wild with their money. . . . This grandstand play comes in and all of a sudden they're questioning the integrity of our department heads."

Pizzorno said he only wants the staff to down a dose of "preventive medicine." While acknowledging that "we're not spending that much," he said he could see a "trend" toward increasing meal and travel bills.

"It's true that the city is running smoothly," Pizzorno said, "but it's my feeling that there's too much out-of-town traveling" by department directors. On several occasions, the councilman said he has been frustrated by being unable to reach various staff members because they were away on business excursions.

Neither the elimination of the utility tax--which was expected to bring the city about $1.4 million next year--nor the restrictions on staff expenses will cause any cuts in "essential services," Pizzorno said. But, he said, "It's going to force the staff and council to look at each expenditure" more carefully.

Mayor Payan was out of town last week and could not be reached for comment.

But Vice Mayor Molinari said all of the council votes demonstrate a "shift from the position that the previous council had taken." The thinking of the current council "tends to be more of a conservative approach" in favor of placing "limitations on the growth of government spending."

Also, the hiring freeze doesn't necessarily mean that the council won't fill any vacancies, Molinari said. "It just simply means that we want to review department requests for personnel to make sure they are essential."

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