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L.A. County auditors to examine Bell’s finances

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday directed county auditors to conduct a comprehensive review of Bell’s finances to determine whether the scandal-plagued city is solvent.

“Bell residents know their civic house is in disarray,” said Supervisor Gloria Molina. “There is no way order can be restored in Bell until residents there have an accurate picture of the city’s finances.”

Since the enormous salaries of top administrators and elected officials were revealed in July, the city and its finances have been under growing scrutiny. The state attorney general’s office has sued eight current or former city leaders; the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office has filed felony corruption-related charges against past and current leaders; and the city has been forced to roll back property taxes that the state controller’s office deemed illegal.

Now, with Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown considering seeking a monitor to watch over the city, or even a court-appointed receiver to essentially run the town, county supervisors have elected to step in and review Bell’s fiscal state.

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The board directed the county auditor-controller and chief executive officer to review the city’s current cash position, contracts and outstanding debts, including authorized and issued bonds. The auditors are expected to report back in 30 days, said Auditor-Controller Wendy Watanabe. The financial review, expected to cost $100,000, will be paid for by the county.

Pedro Carrillo, Bell’s interim chief administrative officer, said he sought support from Molina and the county auditor-controller’s office and welcomed the assistance.

“Our mandate in the city of Bell is to build an open and transparent government for all Bell residents,” Carrillo said.

Watanabe said county auditors would work with the state controller’s office, which is continuing its independent audit of the city.

In addition, she said homeowners in Bell will begin to get property tax refunds. The city improperly collected about $2.9 million in taxes from July 2007 to June 2010, the state controller determined. Those refunds will come from the municipal treasury in Bell, further straining the city’s finances.

An initial batch of refunds will be mailed the first week of November to homeowners. Residents who have sold or transferred ownership of their homes could receive refunds by mid-December, Watanabe said.

Cristina Garcia, a member of the Bell Assn. to Stop the Abuse, said the refunds will be seen as a step in the right direction by residents who had been paying some of the highest property taxes in Los Angeles County.

ruben.vives@latimes.com

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