Bell to Refund Property Taxes It Overcharged

The State of California is forcing the city government of Bell, a non-prosperous suburb of Los Angeles whose administrators were among the most highly paid in the country, to refund $3 million in property taxes the municipality overcharged. About 4,000 property owners will be reimbursed under the plan.

Bell is not the only California city with such problems, only the latest. It joins its neighbors Vernon, Maywood and at least four other communities in the region that have come under investigation by county and state authorities.

Experts have teased out the factors in this phenomenon.

Experts say the failings are caused in part by a lack of oversight by their own residents, and the absence of a local newspaper to cover such political decisions as the Bell City Council approving a contract that gave its manager 12 percent annual pay raises, 28 weeks of vacation and sick leave, and an annual pension of more than half a million dollars.

The conditions in Bell surfaced publicly after the Los Angeles Times, which covers the sprawling metropolitan region, turned its spotlight on the tiny city amid reports of official investigations.

“There’s just nobody paying attention,” said Robert M. Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. “There’s no newspaper. The citizens are not paying that much attention, and when they tried to get some information the city stonewalled them. So the citizens have to hire a lawyer, and they do not have the resources to do that.”

Part of the problem with Bell and some of the other cities is how they are governed. The cities adopted local charters for their own governance in lightly attended elections that gave the city councils wide latitude in setting salaries and making other decisions, Stern said.

So: This was Home Rule gone wild in an essentially watchdog-free zone.

Another factor, of course, is a corporate culture that tolerates corruption.

[A tip o’ the hat once again to the folks who have continued sending links to related stories.]