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Bell voters OKd bonds for sports complex that remains unbuilt

When Bell voters approved Measure A in 2003, the $70-million bond proposal promised great things for the working-class city.

The money would build a state-of-the-art complex for baseball and soccer, and a new practice space for the Bell Sapphires, its award-winning cheerleading team. The city would expand its civic center, improve its parks and build a new library, performing arts theater, public safety center and more.

"Now is the time to continue Bell's transformation into the southeast's finest community," read the ballot argument.

More than seven years later, there is little to show despite expenditures of up to $26.5 million.

The interim city officials who last year took charge of day-to-day operations in Bell say they can find no actual plans for a new library, public safety center or expanded civic center.

Although millions of dollars have been spent on things such as design, site preparation and fencing, the sports complex is no more than a fenced-in plot of weeds and dirt — "the mud pit," as one man who lives across the street calls it.

Officials now say the complex will probably never be built.

Millions were spent on projects at the city's existing parks with little oversight, including tens of thousands in added salaries for former City Administrator Robert Rizzo and former Director of Community Services Annette Peretz.

Some of the money went to a company that was remodeling Rizzo's home at the same time it was working on park projects, according to construction permits and city records.

In a community of 36,000 residents still trying to rebuild from a scandal in which eight former city leaders are charged with looting the treasury, the saga of the park bond is a lasting disappointment.

Out of the $70 million approved in Measure A, the city actually sold $50 million in bonds.

Out of that sum, about $23.5 million remains unused in a non-interest-bearing checking account formerly controlled by Rizzo, according to a report by the state controller.

In the wake of the scandal, Bell faces possible insolvency and has talked about eliminating its parks and recreations programs to pay down its projected deficit.

The city may have to raise taxes to pay off its bond debt for the ill-fated sports project.

The sports complex was pitched to voters as a boon to families in a city where parents had long complained about a lack of after-school activities. Measure A was overwhelmingly approved by the 933 voters who cast ballots.

But records and interviews show that the majority of the money went to projects other than the complex.

More than $8.6 million was spent to build Camp Little Bear Park, a 1.4-acre children's park behind a convenience store owned by former Mayor Oscar Hernandez. The park includes a playground, a small soccer field for children and a lodge for indoor activities.

Bell also built a skate park across from City Hall for $1.24 million and made $2 million in improvements over the last eight years at Veterans' Memorial Park. But city officials said the park's playground area remains in disrepair and is potentially hazardous.

About $35,000 was paid to Rizzo, ostensibly for oversight of the sports complex project. Peretz was paid $9,200, also for oversight.

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Bell spent more than $3 million acquiring land and designing the sports complex. But over the years, the city repeatedly changed the concept.

The property the city purchased was next to land Bell already owned that housed a baseball field. For a while, the new park was to feature an upgraded field. Then that was dropped. A large indoor center was considered but then scaled down. Eventually, the city agreed on a sprawling plaza dubbed Rancho San Antonio Plaza.

In his Downey studio, sculptor Eleazar Martinez said he has the beginnings of a bronze sculpture the city commissioned for the sports complex. It features a mother, father and their children, one of them wearing a cheerleading uniform.

Another sculpture of a family ringing a mission-style bell is just a scale model. Both works were to be displayed at the plaza. Martinez was paid more than $60,000 for the work but since the scandals broke last year, he's stopped as he waits for direction from the city.

Some of the bond money went to two companies connected with Rizzo. Both firms appeared to get the work without contracts, according to a review of records.

More than $1.36 million was paid to McCullah Fence Co., based in Bell Gardens, mostly for installing, reinstalling and removing fences at four small to medium-size parks in the city. During part of that time, the company was remodeling Rizzo's Huntington Beach home.

Rizzo's attorney, James Spertus, said Rizzo paid for the remodeling work with his own money.

An additional $460,000 was paid to a planning firm owned by the city's then-planning director, Dennis Tarango, who was once a partner with Rizzo in a horse-racing venture. Tarango said some of the money was for reviewing drawings for the sports complex project, which he said city officials kept changing.

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The baseball facility on the city property, just off the 710 Freeway, has been leveled. Neighbors said the field wasn't well kept but did host an occasional game.

Now the land is fenced off.

Interim Chief Administrative Officer Pedro Carrillo said he plans to submit a proposal to the City Council with three options: returning the $23.5 million in unused funds to bondholders if that is possible, scaling down the project or putting it on hold indefinitely.

As for building a large sports complex, "I don't think it's an option," Carrillo said. "But the council is going to have to decide that."

For some Bell residents, the demise of the complex is a painful part of the city's scandal, which has resulted in criminal charges against Rizzo and seven other former city officials.

Cheerleading coach Carlos Parra said he learned about the project around 2003 or 2004 from Rizzo.

The city, Parra thought, was on an upward streak, and the city-sponsored cheerleaders he coached were a perfect symbol. The Bell Sapphires had gone from a handful of girls who performed at local events to an award-winning group that traveled the U.S. representing their city. The team was a welcome pastime for dozens of girls whose parents often couldn't afford private lessons.

One day after a practice, Rizzo called Parra into his office to tell him the city was building a complex that would be home to the Sapphires, Parra recalled. He showed him sketches of the project, featuring Mission-style architecture, sprawling fields and large shade trees.

Rizzo told him that the city wanted to name part of it after the cheerleaders.

"I was excited," Parra said. "They were going to have indoor soccer and basketball and a place to hold other classes."

Para never heard of the sports park again. "That was it," he said. "I haven't heard nothing about it since."

A few years later, Parra was laid off as the city cut back on recreation programs, citing a lack of funds at a time when the former administrator's salary was climbing. The cheerleading program was scaled back.

paloma.esquivel@latimes.com

Times staff writer Robert Lopez contributed to this report.

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