Southwest County Debate Focused on Rec Center, Crime and Funds

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Roanoke County Supervisor (Windsor Hills district) Joe McNamara and challenger Ed Elswick squared off in a debate at the Bent Mountain Fire Station last week, in an event sponsored by the Bent Mountain Women’s Club.  Both are seeking the Republican nomination for the Windsor Hills seat, to be decided in the June 9th primary.  Spending in general, funding for new projects and the future of public safety were major issues.

The multi-generational recreation center at Green Ridge in North County was the hot topic of discussion throughout the debate. Elswick said the project should have been ditched long before it came up for a vote.

“Five cities that were visited said it would cost a ton of money and that it won’t make enough [to cover] operating costs,” noted Elswick. “Plus, it will cost a million and a half a year just to pay the principal and interest on the financial obligation.”

McNamara fought the rec. center from day one, and his was the lone “no” vote among the Board of Supervisors.

“I did everything that I could to try to stop it, but in every scenario there are going to be differences of opinion.”  He said the board operates with five members, with only three votes needed for approval. “That is the way that democracy works.”

McNamara added: “the multi-gen center is going in, so the bashing at this point is inconsequential and detrimental.  The best thing that can happen is for it to be enormously successful and to spawn some economic development and some business over there.  So I’m 100% behind it being successful.”

Elswick also objected strongly to the use of lease revenue bonds to finance the recreational facility, on which the public does not get to vote. McNamara responded that when politicians are afraid to issue bonds and everything goes to a vote, it is extremely detrimental to the community, because there is no single project that will get 51% of the public’s vote.

McNamara also contended that crime is on the increase, expanding in concentric circles from the city center. Roanoke County is now in the second circle said McNamara. He spoke about the aging population in the county, saying, “fire and rescue calls are going up dramatically.”

Elswick said he hoped the county was not going to be in a position where they would have to double the number of safety people, and he believed that the crime rate is going down in Roanoke County.

He claimed that the County hired six new police officers, at a cost of $2.7 million (a figure disputed by McNamara), based on increased telephone calls from 2007-2008 – while the annual police reports showed a decrease in phone calls and a decrease in actual crime statistics during that time.

Another issue of contention: 191 vehicles go home with county employees every night, the majority of which belong to police officers.  McNamara is supportive of this practice.  Elswick is not so supportive, wondering how much could be saved if vehicles stayed on county property.

Both men had problems with the proposed South County library, which recently went through a cost-saving redesign, although both agreed that a new library is definitely needed.  Elswick said the building site (off Merriman Road near Penn Forest Elementary) is in a flood plain and not as convenient to citizens as the current Rt. 419 location.

“The library should be built as a functional building and not have any niceties other than toilets.  It ought to be constructed in a way to conserve tax dollars, not with an excessive amount of design,” said Elswick.  The new library has a current price tag of $12 million.

McNamara said the location was not his first choice, but that the decision has been made and it is time to move forward.  He said that building costs are extraordinarily good right now, but if the bid comes in higher than anticipated the project won’t happen.  He also added, “A library today should look different than a library twenty years ago – because the use … is different than what it used to be.”

Concerning Explore Park, Elswick wants no more money wasted, believing that the plan to turn it over to an outside developer whose proposal will cost investors about $200 million is a fiasco.  The best use of the 1,100-acre site, said Elswick, would be to create horse, bike and walking trails, and places for visitors to go fishing.

McNamara said the state-authorized Virginia Recreational Facilities Authority, not the county, owns Explore Park. It was his hope also that it could be used for passive recreation, but that the supervisors don’t make those decisions. Roanoke County did help fund and staff the park for a five-year period before it shut down in 2008.

Elswick said supervisors should, “live within our budget and continue to provide services with the revenues that are coming into the county.  To accomplish that, we need an aggressive effort to control costs.”

The retired engineer and Bent Mountain Civic League member believes he is the best man for the job, Elswick stated, “I am well versed in what it takes to look at contracts and to do the administrative things that are required as a County Supervisor, especially auditing and investigating.”

McNamara feels that it is easy for residents to predict what he will do in the future, because they have had 12 years (three terms) to examine his record.  One of his major goals is to generate revenue and promote the economic vitality of the valley, by attracting the right jobs.  Better ties to Virginia Tech and Carilion as they grown in the area will help.

“These are the two drivers that will keep Roanoke from being inconsequential a hundred years from now,” McNamara said.

No Democrat has announced a bid for the Windsor Hills seat, so the winner of the June 9 Republican primary will be elected supervisor in November. McNamara, owner of Katie’s Ice Cream, has been criticized by Elswick and the members of several civic league groups in the past of not being responsive, and of not attending their quarterly meetings as requested.