Yet another investigation into the city-wide web of corruption in Bell, California has been launched by the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office. Prosecutors are looking into the city’s practice of arbitrarily creating business fees aimed at merchants operating within the city.
According to the Los Angeles Times, city administrator Robert Rizzo and other officials demanded special fees or asked that merchants ”guarantee” certain levels of sales tax payments to top off city coffers. A wide range of businesses were targeted, including restaurants, car washes, auto repair shops and markets. City records show that most of the merchants were small retail mom-and-pop operations. Some of the merchants claimed that they were threatened with closure if they fell behind in paying the fees.
Interim city manager Pedro Carrillo said that the fee programs are still in effect, and over coming weeks, officials will decide whether to continue them. Los Angeles County prosecutors are investigating the fees to determine if they are illegal, and if so, will seek to file criminal charges against former city officials.
Under state law, municipalities are required to justify the collection of fees such as those charged in Bell. Usually, special fees are assessed to offset costs associated with a new business, such as parking lots or traffic lights. So far, city officials have been unable to provide any documentation on how fees were assessed, and why some businesses were charged fees while other similar businesses were not.
The monies collected from the fee program were deposited into the city’s general fund, and used to pay the outsized salaries and benefits to Rizzo, Police Chief Randy Adams and other city officials.