It Didn’t All Start With Bell

Using L.A. suburbs’ government to enrich the few is nothing new. An educator points to the perfectly legal redevelopment projects in City of Industry that siphoned tax dollars and made some men rich.

September 10, 2010|Hector Tobar

Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo worked the system to get himself an annual paycheck of nearly $800,000. He lent $300,000 in city funds to a local car dealership that later went defunct.

That might seem like a lot of money. But half a century ago, some very astute men in another L.A. suburb — the City of Industry — helped invent a system that uses local governments to siphon away billions of our tax dollars. Much of it ends up in private hands. And it’s perfectly legal.

It’s called redevelopment.

“We’re talking $4 billion to $6 billion each year that could be used to fund police officers, firefighters and community colleges,” said Victor Valle, chairman of the ethnic studies department at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and author of a new book that explores the seamy underside of California small-town government.

Redevelopment funds are state tax dollars allocated to city governments. They’re supposed to be used to fight urban blight — and sometimes they are. But just as often, Valle argues, they’re spent on subsidies to the developers of strip malls, privately owned parking lots, warehouses and sports stadiums.

In Industry, a very few men got rich by selling property to the city and putting “redevelopment” projects on these vacant pastures that had never been developed in the first place.

It wasn’t stealing. But it was public money — our money — spent at the service of the few. And those monies are still flowing to developers up and down the state. These business concerns, in turn, feed the political system with their big campaign contributions.

California redevelopment agencies have their origins in a 1950s state law and in the political culture that dominated California during its suburban boom. Valle’s new book, “City of Industry: Genealogies of Power in Southern California,” describes the birth of this culture in Industry.

Founded in 1957, the City of Industry has never had more than 800 residents. But in the late 20th century it received hundreds of millions of dollars in state tax dollars redirected for redevelopment.

By the 1970s, Valle writes, “Industry was no longer just a city; it was now a huge redevelopment mill, the largest in California, perhaps the nation.” A few men and their families got rich.

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