Erik Zimmer returns as Alpine city manager

ALPINE — Erik Zimmer is the new and former city manager for Alpine. He was rehired Tuesday night after a public interview in open session of the City Council, hopefully ending months of what all sides agreed was a dysfunctional situation.

Some still wanted to open the opportunity to anyone by advertising and interviewing several candidates, but others said the need is too great to go through a three-to-six-month process.

And some, including former Brewster County Democratic Chair Dale Christopherson and new City Attorney Rod Ponton, said with the last five or six city managers, the ones who had gotten in trouble were those from out of town who may have had impressive resumés but had no real interest in Alpine.

“A search is nothing more than a fishing expedition,” Christopherson said. “The city does not have a good batting average, but we did get a winner with Erik Zimmer.”

Zimmer grew up in Alpine and was one of the most productive city managers in many years.

When he was hired in late 2013, the city had serious financial problems with a debt of nearly $10 million, almost as great as its total budget. When he left in 2017, it was about $6 million.

Zimmer left Alpine in 2017 for Albuquerque where his wife Dee Dee has family. Two of his three children were about to enter college and have since both enrolled. Zimmer said he and his wife were now anxious to return to Alpine, where she plans to finish her bachelor’s degree at Sul Ross State University.

He said his daughter will graduate from Alpine High School, and he envisions staying in the Alpine job for the rest of his career.

He said they are looking for a house with “a smaller footprint,” not a “3,000-square-foot fixer-upper.” They plan to stay in Alpine, he said.

“I’m 47 and I want to work until I’m 65,” he said. “For those 18 years, I envision staying right here. The private sector is a rat race.”

He said while they were in Albuquerque, he was kept abreast of events in Alpine by his father, the Rev. Dick Zimmer, and “a couple of [city] employees reached out to me.”

Zimmer said the city budget will be a major concern to him. Because some documents were late getting to council, it has agreed to use last year’s budget figure of $12,870,775 as a baseline for the 2019-20 budget, amending it as more details become known.

Zimmer said he used the amendment process when he first came on board in late 2013 and started work to fix that budget and begin getting on sound financial footing.

“Tourism is another important area,” he said. “We need to allocate funds to build vibrant events to bring people to Alpine.”

He said the committee that approves Hotel Occupancy Tax allocations should include a representative of each of the five wards in the city and some hotel representatives.

A representative of the Holland Hotel was recently appointed to the existing committee, which otherwise included only city representatives.

Zimmer said that fund has been bringing in $650,000 to $700,000 per year. By law, the city must spend half of that for advertising, leaving enough for a robust fund for events designed to put “heads in beds” in hotels and motels.

Not all on council had friendly questions, and Ramon Olivas was the lone vote against hiring Zimmer. Olivas said before former City Manager Jessica Garza, who was fired last month, the city had paid scant attention to Ward 2.

He said he would like to see a health clinic, library, technical school, a heritage center and other attractions “south of the tracks.”

Mayor Andy Ramos said he and Zimmer had “a challenging relationship” and had clashed over some “minor” issues. Zimmer suggested the two meet and work out any differences.

A lengthy discussion before Zimmer’s agenda item arose over emails from Peter A. Smyke about newly-hired City Attorney Rod Ponton.

Smyke charged that when Ponton was in that position until 2013, the city had been accused of a massive “fraud” with employees freely drawing advances on their pay from city coffers and Ponton did nothing to stop the practice.

The city issued $600,000 in certificates of obligation to pay for a Quiet Zone for the railroad, but that money went into the general fund and was not there when the city tried to implement the zone. He said the city should have created a separate account for the zone.

A certificate of obligation is similar to a bond issue but does not require voter approval. It’s normally issued to address an emergency condition.

Ponton countered that the problem was investigated by the Texas Rangers, the state attorney general and the city auditor. City Manager Chuy Garcia was fired over the practice, and Finance Director Ricky Chavez pled guilty to a felony.

“The city attorney is not in charge of the books,” Ponton said. “When I found out about it, I told them to stop it.”

He said after the investigation the agencies decided there was no one else to indict.

“If you can’t trust the Rangers, the attorney general and the FBI, we are in real trouble,” Christopherson said.

In other actions, council approved the budget for the fiscal year beginning October 1 and the tax rate of 54.51 per $100 valuation, up from 53.497 last year. The new rate includes 50.433 cents for maintenance and operations, and 4.0433 for the interest and sinking fund.