La-La Land

There'll Always Be a California

What is going on out there? The tiny city of Maywood (1.2 sq. mi.), just southeast of downtown Los Angeles, made the national news when it recently fired all city employees and outsourced everything, from city hall staff to street crossing guards to maintenance workers to fire and police service. And the residents so far couldn't be happier.

“We don’t want to be the model for other cities to lay off their employees,” said Magdalena Prado, a spokeswoman for the city who works on contract. “But our residents have been somewhat pleased.”
Maywood's colorful history of municipal descent into Mad Max territory includes the conviction of a deputy city clerk for hiring a hit man to knock off a city councilman.

Although Maywood, like many American (and especially California) cities, has suffered from a dropoff in tax revenues, its biggest problem was its police force, which inspired so many lawsuits that the city was about to lose its liability insurance. The police department's $8 million annual budget was eating up half the municipal funds. Police service now is being provided by contract with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department at half the price, a change that also allowed the insurance bill to drop from $1 million to $200,000. City hall staff are now provided by contract with a nearby small city:

an estimated 100 employees and contract with neighboring Bell, which will handle other city services such as finance, records management, parks and recreation, street maintenance and others. Maywood will be billed about $50,833 monthly, which officials said will save $164,375 annually.

The city of Bell has received its own unusual media attention this week. Local residents of this tiny working-class community (median income is about $40,000, and 65% of residents over 25 do not have a high school diploma) were startled to learn that their city officials were the highest-paid in the country. Bell's City Manager Robert Rizzo earns $787,637 a year. In comparison, President Obama makes $400,000, L.A. City and County's chief executives earn $338,000 and $257,000 respectively, and Governor Schwarzenegger declines to accept his $174,000 salary.

Bell has roughly the same population as Maywood but about twice the area (2.5 sq. mi.). Both communities are predominantly Hispanic with a high proportion of displaced foreign travelers, as they're now called among the enlightened (h/t Bookworm). Bell council members defend Rizzo's salary, explaining that

the city was near bankruptcy when Rizzo came aboard 17 years ago. Since then, they said, he has put Bell on sound financial footing, with its general fund nearly tripling to about $15 million.
He does seem to have steered his little community through the same shoals that wrecked neighboring Maywood. If Rizzo is fired, as is threatened at this afternoon's closed-session Bell council meeting,
Rizzo, 55, would be entitled to a $659,252-a-year pension for the rest of his life, according to retirement calculations made by The Times that were reviewed by pensions experts. . . . That would make him the highest-paid retiree in the CalPERS system. . . .

I don't live in a city, but I've read my county budget, which is pretty lean. We don't expect our county officials to do a whole heck of a lot here. I can't really draw a bead on this Bell situation. Is it like Kansas City before the Great War, where the city bosses were utterly corrupt but kept a clean, pleasant city nevertheless? Bell is neither a basket case nor a paradise on Earth. The salaries are a caricature of out-of-control government spending, yet the city stays solvent without provoking its residents to a tax revolution or its deputy clerks to take out contracts on councilmen. Will they really get rid of Rizzo and all the other unusually highly paid officials, and if they do, will they find someone to do a better job for less? At the very least, maybe the residents will wake up and take some interest in their local governance.

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