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Commissioner votes conscience, alone

Bonnie Zimmer loses more effectively than any other Pasco County leader.

She does it regularly, winding up on the short end of 3-2 and 4-1 County Commission votes. She does it without much grumbling and often amid applause from spectators. Whether the issue is union contracts or dirt mines, Zimmer loses in style.

This week she again showed that, politically, losing can be an awful lot better the winning.

The issue was whether to allow the controversial Boyette dirt mine to reopen under new ownership. County Attorney Tom Bustin told the board he could see no legally defensible reason to reject the proposal, which met county regulations. Four commissioners held their noses and approved the plan. Zimmer cast a lonely vote against it.

"Bustin has to do what Bustin has to do legally," she explained later. "I just don't believe we can continue to let people rape our county, like they have been."

Classic Zimmer. She takes a position that Pasco's lawyers say almost certainly would be overturned in court. She loses and faces no consequences. The proposal passed, so the developer has no need to sue.

Among the dozens of Boyette neighbors watching Tuesday evening, half of them applauded her for supporting their opposition. The other half reluctantly supported the new mining plan because they saw it as the best hope for eventually cleaning up the property decimated by its previous owners.

But they don't fault Zimmer for her vote. Not at all. Several even called her the next morning, she said, to congratulate her for taking such a strong stand.

"I was elected to represent the people of this county, and I hear from them every day," Zimmer said. "I listen to them."

The Boyette Mine scenario has been repeated throughout the past year on some of the most controversial issues commissioners have faced.

When commissioners find them selves looking out at a crowd of citizens angry over some issue or other, Zimmer as often as not manages to spur them into applause for her minority stance. The other commissioners are left to face the repercussions of unpopular decisions.

Commissioners Hap Clark, Ann Hildebrand and Sylvia Young still are stinging from the final budget hearing last fall, when they approved a budget that required a nearly 8 percent increase in Pasco's tax rate. Zimmer and her steady ally, Ed Collins, dissented and now enter an election year able to boast of never having supsupported a tax increase.

"They just sat back and let us do it, and made us look like the bad guys," Clark said. "I don't think they're being truthful with themselves and with the people with this (budget issue). They've got to take some responsibility. That's what the people elected them for."

Anti-tax fervor

That final budget hearing drew plenty of anti-tax citizens, and it prompted Zimmer to speak more forcefully about the budget than she had throughout months of budget workshops. Amid clapping from the crowd, she spoke of how taxes were breaking the backs of small businesses and how she could not support raising the tax rate one iota.

Until that hearing she had said she "could live with" raising the tax rate up to 10 percent. Indeed, she offered few suggestions for budget cuts during the board's workshops and with support from Young and Collins voted to build two more parks that staff members said would be too costly.

On Friday, Zimmer defended her budget deliberations, noting that she called for the board to cut $200,000 from the county's main economic development agency, the Committee of 100. She noted also that she argued that the county should forget improving court facilities in east and west Pasco but instead consolidate the judicial offices in central Pasco.

She has argued for consolidation since taking office, and during budget deliberations last year she did bring up the issue again at the final budget hearing. A consultant in 1992 described the consolidation as a long-term solution to Pasco's overcrowded courts. But at the time he estimated it would cost about $50-million _ at least four times as much as expanding existing court space.

Clark, Hildebrand and Young occasionally take jabs at Collins and Zimmer for being able to spend money but then ducking when the bills come due. But Clark, Hildebrand and Young can't boast to voters that they never supported a tax increase.

Remaining in a minority voting bloc also served Zimmer and Collins well in August, when they unsuccessfully pushed a last-minute plan to grant retroactive pay raises for the county's nearly 200 emergency workers.

Unionized fire/rescue workers have long supported Collins and Zimmer, and that support was solidified when Collins at the last moment blindsided his fellow board members by proposing an offer much more generous than anything the board had previously discussed. Clark, Hildebrand and Young voted to reject that proposal in the face of angry emergency workers.

No word on how to pay

Neither Zimmer nor Collins has ever said how they felt the county should pay for the hundreds of thousands of dollars the proposal would have cost if it passed. The following month, though, they held firm against raising the property tax rate.

Zimmer and Collins are allies on the board and often make up a minority voting bloc. It's not uncommon, though, for Zimmer to be all alone on issues. She is the only commissioner to support cutting off funding for the Committee of 100, for instance, and she is by far the biggest opponent of fill-dirt mines.

Her stance on the mine issue actually led Circuit Judge Maynard F. Swanson to recommend she abstain from voting on one controversial application, the TKL Development Corp. proposal for Doyle Ranch off State Road 54. The board unanimously rejected that proposal last spring, but Swanson later overturned their decision.

He said the board had applied "a political litmus test" to the proposal, rather than base their decision on evidence. He singled out Zimmer for her comment that even if she were taken to court, "there's no way I'm going to vote for it," and suggested she abstain when the board reconsidered the application.

Zimmer decided not to abstain, however. Despite Bustin's explanation that the judge was effectively ordering them to approve the Doyle Ranch proposal, she cast the only vote against it in December. Her position drew praise from the many Odessa residents fighting the mine proposal.

Swanson said Friday he didn't view her vote as a refusal to accept his order. "She may not understand exactly what her function is (at such hearings)," he said.

Zimmer, meanwhile, dismisses suggestions that politics has much to do with her decisionmaking. And she's not bothered by so often voting with the minority.

"Is it easy for me to sit up there and be the lone vote and know that I'm going to get flak from the other commissioners if I don't go along with them? No it's not," she said. "I believe what I'm doing is the right thing for me to do."

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