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Uproar Grows Over Pay For Calif. City's Officials

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Uproar Grows Over Pay For Calif. City's Officials

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Uproar Grows Over Pay For Calif. City's Officials

Uproar Grows Over Pay For Calif. City's Officials

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The uproar continues in the small California community that found itself paying the highest salaries in the nation for its city officials. The city manager, the assistant city manager and the chief of police have all resigned after their six-figure incomes were revealed — but now they are looking at collecting potentially million-dollar pensions in their forced retirement. The scandal has reinvigorated debate over the need to reform the state's pension system to plug the state's $19 billion deficit.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And Im Michele Norris.

The outrage continues in Bell, California, where city managers were among the highest paid in the nation. Bell is a community of about 40,000, mostly working-class Latinos. It sits in the shadows of downtown Los Angeles. Bell's city manager, assistant city manager and chief of police have all resigned, but they still stand to collect million-dollar pensions.

And that sparked new calls for pension reform across California, as KPCC's Frank Stoltze reports.

FRANK STOLTZE: For more than a decade, Marcella Herrera has called Bell home.

Ms. MARCELLA HERRERA: You know, there's been times like, five years ago I've been thinking, you know, maybe I should move. But I like this city, you know. It's a nice city to live in.

STOLTZE: Like just about everybody else here, the 33-year-old teacher's assistant was shocked to find out that the city manager made nearly $800,000 a year, and part-time city council members made nearly 100,000. Bell is a place where most folks dont make a lot of money.

Ms. HERRERA: It's amazing. You know, with the recession still going on, and yet they're taking money from residents who make $30,000 or less. This is what happens, you know, when we put the trust in people we elect.

(Soundbite of protesters)

STOLTZE: At a recent City Council meeting, Flora Cloros(ph) joined a chorus of people calling for council members to resign.

Ms. FLORA CLOROS: We want you guys all out. You guys should be in jail because you guys are stealing. And we are in America, where they promise us equality. This is not equality. Nobody should be above the law.

STOLTZE: While council members voted to reduce their own salaries by 90 percent, theyve refused to step down. With no sense of irony, councilwoman Teresa Jacobo said her city needs her.

Ms. TERESA JACOBO (Council Member, City of Bell, California): I am here to stand by my people.

(Soundbite of booing)

Ms. JACOBO: To make the changes necessary, to apologize for all this turmoil. And I will stand here as a pillar - that I have been since way before I was on the council.

STOLTZE: High salaries aren't thats bothering Bell residents. Top city officials whove resigned stand to collect big pensions. City manager Robert Rizzo could receive annual payouts nearing $900,000 until the end of his life.

Mr. JERRY BROWN (Attorney General, California): That is really the heart of this matter, because it's not just the money now, it's the money in the coming decades.

STOLTZE: Thats California Attorney General Jerry Brown. He's launched one of several investigations into Bell's finances.

The pay scandal in Bell has added more fuel to a statewide debate about government pensions. Marcia Fritz is with the watchdog group the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility. She says the current state pension system is broken. It calculates payouts based on an employee's final year's salary.

Ms. MARCIA FRITZ (President, California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility): So the game is - and what was played very well in Bell - when you're looking at retirement, which is what this manager was looking at, he was looking to get his final salary up as high as possible, and retire in style.

STOLTZE: Fritz said many other public employees do the same, just not to the same degree. And the city of Bell, which is part of the California Public Employees Retirement System, is not going to be paying for this on its own.

Ms. FRITZ: A lot of the costs will be borne by the citizens of Bell, but a good part of the costs will also be shared by the other cities within the pool, and these are cities all over California.

STOLTZE: Outsized payments have added to state and local budget deficits. Thats why Fritz, along with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, have called for major pension reforms across the state - like raising the retirement age, and limiting benefits.

Those reforms may not have prevented Bell from doling out huge salaries, but could have stopped city officials from sucking the city dry long after they're gone.

For NPR News, Im Frank Stoltze in Los Angeles.

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