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Commission race hits on accessibility

Published Oct. 18, 2005

In her campaign for the District 2 seat on the Pasco County Commission, Republican Bonnie Zimmer says the things any candidate might say: Cut the budget. Lower taxes. Improve roads. Zimmer, however, does not stop there. She also questions whether Curtis Law, a Democrat who has served four terms on the County Commission, has gotten too entangled in his business dealings to serve his constituents.

"Many people have indicated that because of his consistent conflicts of interest over the years, he is not really representing the people as he should be," she said.

Law's business dealings revolve around the sale of a family citrus grove to Scarborough Constructors. During the last three years, the sale has forced Law to abstain from numerous votes affecting Scarborough and the extension of Collier Parkway, which Scarborough is helping to build.

Law concedes abstaining from so many votes has given Zimmer an issue to use against him politically, but he asserts constituents can reach him when they need him.

"I'm available because I live in Land O'Lakes, and I'm there all the time," Law said. When Law tends the trees in his citrus grove along Drexel Road, "I have people stop and talk all the time."

Zimmer remains unconvinced. She offers herself as a "responsive and responsible" alternative.

While Zimmer contends Law's land sale has compromised his ability to serve on the commission, she does not think unresolved financial problems of her own would pose a problem.

In 1983, Zimmer's husband, William, was struck with a serious illness that left the couple with a $4,584 hospital bill and a $865 credit card bill. The hospital and the credit union that issued the card sued the Zimmers in Hillsborough County Court, according to court records.

Although the Zimmers paid off the debts in 1988, they fell behind on other obligations. Public records show that they owe the Internal Revenue Service about $6,600 in income taxes for 1986 and 1987.

Zimmer said owing the back

taxes would not affect her service as a county commissioner.

"I don't think that is really an issue," she said. "We're very honest and above-board about our life. We're very stable people and we have not ever run away from our bills."

Curtis Law

If re-elected, Law, 54, does not expect the next four years to be easy.

True, some major public works projects are getting close to completion. One by one, new parks and libraries have begun to come on line. A waste-to-energy incinerator and state-mandated jail are scheduled to open next year.

But the County Commission's general property tax rate stands at 9.186 mills _ closer to the state's 10-mill cap than any time during Law's four terms on the commission. A mill equals $1 in property taxes for every $1,000 of assessed, non-exempt property value.

The costs of operating and maintaining county facilities rise as more projects are completed, and an increasingly soft economy is not likely to help.

"It's going to be a difficult time dealing with limited financial resources," Law said. "You're really going to have to get down and look at the nuts and bolts of the type of services you're going to give your people with a limited amount of money."

Law, a Pasco native and lifelong citrus grower, also says his experience as a commissioner will help as the commission implements the comprehensive land use plan it adopted to comply with Florida's growth management law.

"I think right now you're at the refinement stage," he said. "It's going to take a board that understands the comprehensive plan in order to properly to implement it, and it's going to be a difficult process."

While the budget and land-use planning are standard issues in any County Commission race, Law also has had to contend with tough questions about his business with Scarborough.

The questions arise from a decision that Law and his five sisters made to sell 282 acres near Lake Padgett Estates to Scarborough.

Under the contract between Scarborough and Law's family, the developer paid about $4-million over three years. The sale was closed Oct. 5.

During the three years the sale was pending, Law consistently abstained from votes involving Scarborough and its plans to develop the Sable Ridge subdivision on the property. He also abstained from votes involving the extension of Collier Parkway.

Once complete, the parkway is expected to provide an alternative to heavy north-south traffic on U.S. 41. It also will benefit Sable Ridge by giving the subdivision access to State Road 54.

In mid-April, the Tampa Tribune published a series of stories, columns and editorials suggesting that Law used his position as a commissioner to increase the value of land his family has sold to Scarborough.

In response, Law asked the Pasco-Pinellas State Attorney's Office to review his voting record in light of the Tribune's charges. He also denied the newspaper's allegations and sued three of its writers for libel.

The lawsuit is pending, but the state attorney's investigation was finished in June. Chief Assistant State Attorney Bernard McCabe said investigators found "insufficient evidence to support any violation of criminal law."

Zimmer does not challenge Law's honesty. But she said Law, who has been endorsed by the Pasco Builders Association, is too close to the development community.

"Anyone who has great ties with land and builders and developers in the county can't truly represent the common taxpayer because of their personal involvement," she said. "That's inadequate representation. We don't need those kinds of people on the commission."

Law responded that the sale has been closed, and he no longer has a potential conflict of interest. Consequently, he said his ability to serve is not impaired, and he has not shied away from constituents.

"If I'm asked," Law said, "I have not refused to go to any function that people ask me to (attend) in Land O'Lakes."

Bonnie Zimmer

In challenging Law for his seat on the commission, Zimmer is trying to win her second election in Pasco County.

Her first victory came in 1972, when she was elected to the Pasco County School Board.

Zimmer served four years as school officials struggled with some of their most difficult financial problems. She ran for re-election, but was defeated by Kathleen Edwards, an 18-year-old who graduated from Land O'Lakes High School six months before the election.

"The teachers' union didn't particularly like my views sometimes," Zimmer said. "They groomed (Edwards), and they got out and worked in force for her."

Despite losing her bid for re-election, Zimmer said her tenure as a school board member was successful. In particular, she said she advocated the centralization of School Board offices and fought building a new administration building in Dade City.

"I believe that I saved the taxpayers of this county an awful lot of money, because I did promote that and got it through on a 3-to-2 vote," she said.

Zimmer, 56, owns Bonnie D. Zimmer & Associates, a Land O' Lakes business that leases office space to and provides support services for a number of small businesses. She said she wants to bring her experience as a business owner to the County Commission.

For Zimmer, that would mean pushing county and state officials to better coordinate their road maintenance programs and pay attention to smaller roads throughout Pasco.

"I see roads all over this county that are absolute washboards," she said. "It's not like it happened last month and it's not repaired. It's years and years and years. I don't understand why we're not on top of maintaining roads within our county."

To get state and local officials to pay prompt attention to road maintenance, Zimmer said "you just stay in there and you work as hard as you can. . . . I mean, persistence really pays off a lot of times."

As a commissioner, Zimmer said she also would try to focus on the bottom line.

"I feel that there is a lot of room for cutting out waste in our county," said Zimmer, who has been endorsed by the Federation of Mobile Home Owners and the Fraternal Order of Police.

She also attacked Law for not discussing the budget in more detail when residents ask him questions about county spending.

When pressed for specifics on where she would cut the county's budget, Zimmer would not say where she would start trimming.

"I hate to be specific because I haven't been on the inside really studying things," she conceded.