Culver City mayor’s personal debts raise budget questions

Culver City Mayor Andrew Weissman, left, with artist Tony Tasset. Weissman owes the federal and state governments $550,000 in unpaid taxes, penalties and interest.
(Valerie Macon, Getty Images)

Culver City Councilman Andy Weissman won reelection last spring while touting his role in helping secure employee pension and benefit reforms that put the town on a “sounder financial footing.”

In his personal affairs, however, he has been struggling to gain his own balance: Weissman, now mayor, owes the federal and state governments at least $550,000 in unpaid taxes, penalties and interest, according to liens filed with the Los Angeles County registrar-recorder’s office.

The tax liens — some of which were filed against Weissman and his wife — cover federal income taxes and either state personal income tax or state corporate taxes, as well as federal payroll taxes, the documents show.

Weissman — an attorney who was first elected in 2008 — acknowledged the liens in a recent interview and does not know the exact amount he owes tax authorities, although it probably is less than public records detail, he said. For at least the last three years, he said, he has been paying off the debts to the Internal Revenue Service and California Franchise Tax Board under installment agreements.

“It had to do with bad budgeting on my part,” Weissman said, explaining that a lack of cash flow from his single-practitioner law firm and “poor planning” left him unable to pay some taxes throughout the years.

Representatives of the Franchise Tax Board and the IRS said they could not comment on matters involving individual taxpayers.

Weissman, 62, said he did not see his personal financial problems as “relevant to the issues of the city” and made a distinction between his private and public lives.

“I have gotten into a situation where I am paying off back taxes by way of installments,” he said. It’s “my responsibility, my burden.”

As a councilman, the mayor said, he is one member of a team “whose responsibility is to act in the best interests of the city.

“I believe my public record, my service to the city, has demonstrated that I have always been able to do that.”

In addition, his tax attorney and accountant have disputed some aspects of the liens, he said.

Fellow Councilman Jim Clarke, who was first elected in April, said the mayor’s financial problems come as a surprise.

“I am just sort of shocked by it,” Clarke said.

Clarke said Weissman has played an active and positive role in the city and has displayed good fiscal judgment while on the council.

Culver City is “not being grandiose with our expenses, and we are watching them closely, and the mayor has been a part of that for the last four years — helping guide that,” he said.

But the unpaid taxes raise important questions, said Robert Stern, former president of the now-closed watchdog group Center for Governmental Studies and an author of state political law. The debts call into question how much faith residents can place in Weissman to guide how the city spends its dollars, he said.

“He is in a position of important power, and he is making fiscal decisions and financial decisions with other people’s money,” Stern said.

Still, Stern noted, the mayor doesn’t make decisions in a vacuum.

“He is one of five,” he said, referring to the number of council members.

The most recent tax year for which a lien was filed was 2010, according to county records. Last year, state officials filed that lien against Weissman and his wife, seeking $18,287. In 2010, federal officials filed a lien related to unpaid personal income tax for the 2009 tax year that sought $32,489.

Taken as a whole, the liens show a persistent pattern, covering every tax year from 1998 to 2010.

News of the mayor’s personal tax situation comes as city residents prepare to vote on a sales tax increase Tuesday.

Facing a drop in revenue because of the recession, the state budget crisis and the elimination of redevelopment agencies, the City Council voted unanimously last summer to put a half-cent sales tax increase before voters. If approved, the Culver City sales tax would increase to 9.25%.

“I think we have a responsibility, an obligation, a duty to do what is necessary — which is to cover our operating structural deficit,” Weissman told the public and his colleagues before voting to place the measure on the ballot.

The proposed tax hike, which would sunset after 10 years, has drawn little opposition within the city where Weissman has long been active.

He has served on panels such as Culver City’s Planning Commission and the Civil Service Commission, according to his biography on the city’s website. He also previously served a rotation as mayor for one year during his first term.

As of August 2011, Weissman also owed a debt collector $20,206 in connection with a credit card account, according to court records.

Weissman said he does not recall ever having the credit card.