Montebello’s financial story, though just starting to publicly unfold, seems to be following a narrative similar to that of two other cities east of Los Angeles: Bell and Maywood.
It’s short on cash and has pulled restricted redevelopment dollars into the general fund. Further, officials recently discovered two "off the books" bank accounts through which more than $1 million in taxpayer money had moved through, the Los Angeles Times has reported.
And, like its two neighbors, Montebello police have aggressively impounded cars, creating a revenue source.
John Chiang, the California state controller, last week ordered a full audit [PDF] of Montebello’s finances. The city is months late in filing its annual report to the state, one of the reasons Chiang believes earlier financial statements are “false, incomplete or incorrect,” the controller wrote in an April 21 letter.
In the coming months, state auditors will explore every dollar that has moved in and out of Montebello’s accounts.
Vehicle seizures will certainly be part of the mix.
At holiday sobriety checkpoints alone last fiscal year, Montebello police officers impounded more than 100 vehicles for every one drunken driving arrest. The statewide average was six seizures per arrest, according to data from the Safe Transportation Research and Education Center at UC Berkeley. The center operates a grant program funding the checkpoints for the California Office of Traffic Safety.
Officers failed to conduct a single field sobriety test during four out of six roadway operations in Montebello last year.
Last year, an investigation by California Watch and the UC Berkeley Investigative Reporting Program found that sobriety checkpoints had become a significant cash source for local governments and tow firms. The drivers most often losing their cars are illegal immigrants, who cannot legally obtain a license.
Here is what we discovered about Montebello during the 2008-09 fiscal year:
In Los Angeles County, the city of Montebello requires its tow operator to increase its cut of impound revenue when the police department seizes a higher volume of cars. Tow company Helms and Hill Inc. pays Montebello $200 per tow when officers order more than 151 cars hauled away each month, the city’s finance records show.
Montebello’s DUI checkpoints rank among California’s least effective at getting drunks off the road. Last year, officers there failed to conduct a single field sobriety test at three of the city’s five roadway operations, state records show.
Montebello collected upward of $95,000 during the last fiscal year from checkpoints, including grant money for police overtime.
Bell and Maywood had their share of money woes before their city governments imploded.
Maywood struggled to purchase insurance coverage a year ago and dissolved most of its services, outsourcing its affairs to Bell. This action followed a 2009 report from the California Attorney General’s Office finding serious civil rights violations by the Maywood Police Department, including the seizure of more than 17,000 vehicles from 2002 to 2007.
The city collected at least $200 per car, state investigators found. The report explored the motivation and consequences of the effort:
This revenue appears to have been the primary motivation for impounding such an extraordinary number of vehicles. Enforcement priorities that are motivated by the desire to raise revenue for a municipality, however, may result in the redeployment of existing police resources, thereby making it increasingly difficult to address more serious crime problems. And, where an enforcement priority is motivated by the desire to raise revenue, allegations of corruption may arise, as occurred here.
Shortly after Bell took over services for Maywood, the Los Angeles Times exposed the massively swollen salaries being paid to Bell’s top officials. Several of those officials now face criminal prosecution. (That reporting won the Times won a Pulitzer Prize for public service last week.)
Those salaries and benefits were partially funded by illegal taxes and impounded cars – with tow fees generating more than $700,000 per year.