The already fractured political landscape in scandal-plagued Bell is expected to worsen in the coming months as the city considers slashing spending to stay solvent.
A draft audit by the Los Angeles County auditor-controller found that the city needs to make deep cuts in its budget, including possibly eliminating the Bell Police Department and contracting with the L.A. County Sheriff's Department as one option. Cuts are also possible in other programs.
This weekend, the Bell Police Officers Assn. came out fighting, suggesting that killing the Police Department would hurt public safety and disputing claims that the city would save money by bringing in the Sheriff's Department.
"There have already been cutbacks of police officers and public safety resources," Gilbert Jara, president of the association, said in a statement. "We need more police officers on the streets to fight gangs, drug traffickers, domestic abusers and other criminals — not less."
The specter of closing the Police Department was present at the annual food and toy giveaway held by officers Friday evening at the Bell Community Center.
Capt. Tony Miranda stood in front of dozens of families with a microphone in hand: "We do this every year because we love doing this," he said. "And we'll continue to do this, God willingly."
News of more cuts was met with outrage from some residents at the event. To many, it was the latest indignity after a series of blows that began with revelations that top city officials were earning huge salaries, and continued when L.A. County prosecutors charged eight current and former leaders in a sweeping public corruption case.
"It makes me angry," said Jeanette Cardona, 28. "Our city has gone through a lot."
Some vowed to fight for the Police Department. "You know, 9/11 was America's wake-up call, the drug cartels are Mexico's wake-up call," said Alfredo Vasquez, 46. "This is a wake-up call for every little town like Bell."
The auditor's report found that Bell has been running a deficit totaling several million dollars over at least the last three years under former Chief Administrative Officer Robert Rizzo. The red ink is the result of hefty salaries and pensions for top Bell officials and extensive city-run programs, the review found. To cover part of the deficit, city officials took bond money for specific projects and diverted it to the general fund.
During the three years covered in the audit, salaries of top city officials grew rapidly, accounting for an increasingly large portion of the city's budget. Until they were forced to resign in July, Rizzo was in line to earn more than $1.5 million, Assistant City Administrator Angela Spaccia, $846,000, and Police Chief Randy Adams, $770,000. All but one member of the City Council were earning close to $100,000 annually for their part-time jobs.
As the Bell scandal has widened, it has touched the department itself. Some police officials received personal loans from the city during the Rizzo era. And the U.S. Justice Department is currently investigating allegations that Bell officials violated the civil rights of Latino residents by aggressively towing cars and charging residents exorbitant fees to get their vehicles back.
The city, with a population of about 40,000 and a general fund of $13.5 million, has been forced to refund more than $5 million in taxes illegally levied during the Rizzo era and faces hefty legal bills because of the scandal. It has racked up $600,000 in fees from Interim City Atty. Jamie Casso and his law firm since they were hired last summer.
The final audit is set to be released in January. At that point, officials will decide on specific cuts, which must be approved by the City Council. At the toy and food giveaway, residents worried about basic services — such as recreation programs — being lost.
"It's dumb, they took away the opportunities we had," said Anthony Cortes, 11.