While serving in Iraq, I would never have expected to find my own hometown to be the epicenter of corruption and the poster child for everything democracy isn't. As a returning combat veteran it is easy to see corruption in foreign countries like Iraq and Afghanistan and feel fortunate to live in America, a country where freedom is respected and laws honored. But that's not always true, even in America; these same freedoms can be turned upside down and justice can seem slow to come.
Bell, California is a city that looks similar to many small cities in Southeast Los Angeles. Scandal and corruption have been well documented by the LA Times and much has been written about a city government District Attorney Steve Cooley called, "corruption on steroids." It was revealed that former council members were making up to $100,000 a year. Robert Rizzo, former Chief Administrative Officer, was making as much as $800k with pay and benefits totaling $1.5 million a year. The legacy of Rizzo & company will leave its scars.
In the wake of the scandal that rocked the nation and ushered many statewide reforms. Residents proclaim with regret the fact that they are still one of the highest taxed cities within the County of Los Angeles. In a county of 88 cities, Bell has the second highest property taxes - thousands of dollars higher than even some of the wealthier cities within the county like Beverly Hills or Pasadena.
It is a "shameful" state of affairs, explains Nora Saenz, a long time resident and local activist. Ask what the solution is to the already high taxes and you get an earful from Nora and other residents. By far the biggest city expenditure is spending for its now 83-year-old police department; the second highest is trash services. In comparable cities the size of Bell, contracting law enforcement services with the LA County Sheriff's Department could possibly save this city $2 to 3 million.
In elections this past March, the police department spent thousands of dollars running a campaign and endorsing candidates, the majority of which won. The neighboring cities of Maywood, Cudahy, and Commerce are all currently patrolled by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. However, the decision to contract out to the Sheriff's Department hasn't even been proposed and change isn't coming soon enough for this city. The new council finds it hard to change old ways.
Just recently, the council all voted to raise property taxes. The tax hike will take effect in October. The reason? "The current way the city pays its bonds leaves it with a multi-million dollar dollar deficit," according to the Arne Croce, acting Chief Administrative Officer. The city recently adopted a bridge budget that Croce says can be amended as the council sees fit. However, few residents believe this will ever happen.
The higher property taxes will go towards paying a $70 million bond for the building of a sports center that hasn't been built yet. There seems to be no plans in building it either; About half of that bond has been spent by the old administration led by Rizzo on such things as salaries, personal loans, and retirements. Former council members, employees and police officers benefited from this as well.
The residents of the city will now have to pay a property tax rate of 1.57 percent from an already high 1.54 percent. The latest census shows the City of Bell, which has just over 35,000 residents, is also one of the poorest with an average per capita income of $17 - $20,000. The median family average is just over $30,000 in a city that is just two square miles.
At a recent council meeting, myself, and dozens of residents spoke against imposing higher taxes. In this already cash strapped city, unemployment is high. According to the LA Times, the city's unemployment is 17.4 percent, which is higher than the state average of 12.4 percent and higher than the county average of 13.3 percent.
But it's not just the property taxes that are high. The former administration made sure to tax residents and businesses across the board up to 10 percent on such services as water and power, phone/cell phone use, sales tax, and refuse/recycling services. None of these taxes are being proposed to be lowered either. Nearly $2 million dollars has yet to be returned to businesses that were taxed illegally. And there is more. Lawsuits are pending and investigations are ongoing.
It's ironic that in a city this impoverished there would be special interests that are paramount to the general interests of the residents and businesses of the city. Perhaps this is not surprising given the local and even national politics of the day. It's incredulous however, to think that small town "micro" politicians can have such an impact on people's lives.
Maybe we all need to pay more attention to the "micro" politicians, who are no less micro in affecting our lives or our pocketbooks. So I stand back and think of what will be needed in this new age. Characteristics like trust and integrity are what make up the majority of people in the military. Perhaps if we had have people with these characteristics in Bell office none of this would have happened.
Bell will forever stand as a stark reality of what can happen when too much trust and power are given to small government in the hands of the corrupt. This case can be tried and tested in the City of Bell were voters trusted too much and gave too much power to their "micro" politicians. Perhaps Bell is an example of why we should fear small government, not because it's small, but because of the people we elect.
Returning home in tough economic times can be harsh. Harsher still is returning to a place that has lost its moral compass. Yet this is the very reason returning veterans have an important political role to play in America. It's not surprising that scandal and corruption are alive and well in our back yards.
Veterans are underrepresented in local, state, and federal office in unprecedented numbers. Time magazine has called the veterans returning from the wars, "The New Greatest Generation." Perhaps us returning veterans need to start living up that. Don't get me wrong, doing what's right doesn't require you to be a veteran, but it would be a refreshing start to more ethical government.
Mario Rivas is an Iraq War Veteran and is currently serving in the California Army National Guard and a member of the Veteran’s Caucus of the State of California Democratic Party. He currently works in the City of Huntington Park as an Environmental Specialist. Mario is a resident of the City of Bell.
Republished from the Veterans Caucus of the California Democratic Party site.