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Ed Elswick at Roanoke County construction site
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Roanoke County Recreation Center construction site
What would cause Ed Elswick, a 68-year-old retired General Electric finance manager, to run against a long-standing incumbent for Roanoke County Supervisor from the Windsor Hills District?
And how could he proceed to unseat three-term Roanoke County Supervisor Joe McNamara in the Republican Primary in June, albeit by the slimmest of margins?
There may be clues in a few of the tenets of Elswick’s platform:
- “I will pursue cost-cutting programs . . . under a philosophy that county expense should not exceed what the average citizen can afford.”
- “I will advocate freezing tax rates and assessments until the county reduces expenses as much as possible.”
- “I will not approve the issuance of any more lease revenue bonds. Any bond issue should be approved by taxpayers.”
There may also be a hint of a highly effective campaigner, as witness Elswick’s 111-9 crushing of McNamara in the Bent Mountain precinct, where Elswick has long served as president of the civic league. He and his “campaign staff” of neighbors Karen Scott and Kay Moore reportedly knocked on more than 1,000 doors.
And there may also be a pinch of down-home charm from a guy who doesn’t look much like a politician.
Ask Elswick for his view on the key factors in his win and he cites three: Voters ready for change; voters feeling the county was spending too much on projects that were not needed; and citizens feeling they were being ignored.
“It is time that people stood up and said let’s stop this and put common sense into how we should run our government,” he says. There’s one more factor.
“Rural areas like Catawba and Bent Mountain are still ignored by the county administration,” Elswick says. “And that’s okay – we want to be left alone. But there are things that happen that show us that we aren’t left alone. They threaten up here to close our schools. At one point they took away our two permanent fire fighters. We want more of a say as to what the county does. The rural areas are so important to the citizens. We get tons of visitors coming to us. We felt like we needed a voice to what the county affairs are all about.”
Whatever the reasons, it was a major upset in Roanoke County politics, and sets the stage for Elswick’s run in November against Democrat Sarah Goodman, a real estate agent and former teacher who has filed papers, but as we go to press has not formally announced her campaign.
Elswick’s run also sets the stage for the trotting out of that platform built upon doing “everything possible to reduce Roanoke County’s current monetary commitments.”
Just who is Ed Elswick?
At first impression, Elswick’s soft-spoken approach and casual, country appearance make you wonder if he is really up to the task. Is he ready to deal with the complicated financial matters that have become a part of local government?
Consider his background.
As an 18-year-old, he left his home in Eastern Kentucky with $10 in his pocket to attend Berea College, where there is no tuition and students work their way through school. He then went on to Ball State University and earned a Masters in Education.
He taught high school and then went to work at General Electric, spending three years at GE’s Financial Management program, among the premier such programs in the world.
He then served as a financial manager at four different GE locations. He also spent time as a quality manager during the last few years, negotiating government contracts for GE.
Yes, it appears Elswick is indeed ready to deal with complicated financial matters.
“I think the negotiation skills I acquired working with numerous department managers at GE and government auditors – who by the way are worse to deal with then the IRS – would come in handy negotiating contracts for the county,” Elswick says. “The first thing I would do is use my expertise in finance and examine where the money is being spent and look for ways to reduce. I would talk to people who are spending money and see how they are doing it. I would look at how they are carrying out their responsibilities and see how we could improve upon that.”
And while Elswick may be a newcomer to the political campaigning, he is no stranger to political activism. He has long had an interest in reviewing county contracts to fully understand how the county was spending “his” tax dollars.
He also personally lobbied the county supervisors to take serious action when gypsy moths invaded Bent Mountain, asserting that the county was ignoring a serious problem that continues to destroy vegetation in parts of the county.
Basics yes, extravagance no
Elswick has also been vocal in disapproval of the continued escalation of the real estate tax burden on the citizens of the county, which provide more than half of Roanoke County’s general government budget.
“I don’t have a problem with basic services such as schools, garbage collection, police and fire/rescue,” Elswick says. “I think these services have been managed well.”
His objection is to the county’s spending on things beyond the basic services.
“The issue I have with some of the spending is the extravagance,” he says. “A library or a school may be a great use of money, but why the extravagance with designs and construction?”
Elswick says smaller details can also use attention.
“Even a very basic item like writing pens at the Roanoke County building having specific department names on them,” he says. “At GE, we all had basic pens that everyone used – there were no department names on them. In addition, if you look at the furnishings in the county building, they are nicer than what people have in their homes. Why is that? Don’t county employees work for the people, or is it the other way around?”
On the larger scale, prime among Elswick’s worries is the $30 million, 76,000-square-foot recreation center with a 20,000-square-foot water park that is being constructed in North Roanoke County, which Elswick contends is not a high citizen priority, despite county staff assertions to the contrary and citings of metrics that show county residents in favor of things such as “adult fitness and wellness programs” and “water fitness programs” ranking high in several survey questions.
Elswick cites survey question 11 – “How well parks and recreation facilities in Roanoke County met the needs of respondent households” – as key in his assertion that the results are misleading.
“Indoor fitness and exercise facilities came in sixth” [by percentage of respondents citing a need for facilities], Elswick says. “And even if this survey, which was only based on 1,100 respondents, had come out strongly in favor of a recreation center, it still is not valid to base a $30 million decision on.”
He also questions the hiring of six new police officers that “cost us $2.7 million, according to county management discussion and analysis for the year ended June 30, 2008.” His reading of the county budget yields the conclusion that the funds were directly related to the hiring of the six new officers.
“The hiring was based not on an increase in crime statistics, but merely from alleged increased phone calls to the county,” he says, noting that annual police reports actually show a decrease in phone calls and actual crime statistics during that period.
Elswick also questions the necessity of about 275 of the county’s 400 vehicles being dedicated to individuals as take-home vehicles.
“I think public officials should follow the same practices with company cars as businesses do – only where absolutely necessary,” Elswick says. “At GE, we had only one company car that was dedicated to a specific person. We did have other company cars, but you had to sign them out. I don’t see any reason why any county personnel should drive a company car home. And in the case of police cars, we should investigate a little more on having a police car in the neighborhood and its effect on crime.”
Elswick believes many of these projects that are not part of the basic function of local government are initiated and supported by elected officials for the purpose of leaving a legacy and getting re-elected.
“Anytime politicians get involved in handling the public’s money, they will use it in a way that helps get them re-elected,” Elswick says. “They brag about it to their constituents, and say ‘look what I’ve done for you.’”
Who’s watching the hen house?
Another question on Elswick’s mind is if elected officials are spending money the county doesn’t have on projects the voters don’t want, then why are they for the most part voted back into office every election cycle? Elswick suggests the people don’t really see a clear relationship between frivolous projects and money being taken out of their own pockets to pay them.
“Some people understand the relationship between County spending and higher taxes, but many do not,” he says. “In fact, I have run into many citizens who don’t even know how many supervisors there are and who they are. The only time they are interested in their government official is when they get their tax bill and they get upset. But even then, for the most part, people are just too busy to care. People just don’t see the relationship with their taxes going up and the extravagant projects. Many assume that the elected officials will do a good job overseeing the spending of their money.”
In some cases, it appears voters don’t know that the money is being spent and they are on the hook for the debt being incurred. Take the $58 million lease-revenue bond issue that the Roanoke County Supervisors passed in 2007-2008, bonds that according to Elswick will cost county taxpayers $82.9 million including interest. In doing so, county supervisors bypassed the citizens by not using the standard general obligation bond referendum. Since these bonds use the facilities they finance as collateral, no voter approval is needed.
“I don’t really understand why the Roanoke County Supervisors did it this way,” Elswick says. “I know that [former Roanoke County Administrator] Elmer Hodge was very convincing in the projects he undertook. I think the supervisors thought that since other municipalities around the country were using lease revenue bonds, it was okay for Roanoke County to use them.”
The bond package includes a new Southwest County library, fire and rescue building, fleet maintenance center, the recreation center and other upgrades and facilities.
Elswick’s view: “I think most the projects that were being packaged together under the one lease revenue bond would have been approved if done separately, except for the biggest expenditure – the recreation center – which was $30 million. I think the projects should have been voted on separately and that way each one would have gotten more visibility and some of them could have been stopped – especially the recreation center. This was a very arrogant approach to spending the citizens’ money by the board of supervisors.”
Which leads to Elswick’s worries over how Roanoke County pays for services and facilities when the money isn’t already in place.
“When you make unrealistic projections and then spend based on those projections,” Elswick says, “you place a high tax burden on your residents to pay for programs and services, and you put the county and its residents into never-ending debt.”
A Roanoke Times study in 2007 seems to support this statement, noting that Roanoke County had the highest “effective” real estate rate of all 95 Virginia counties.
The higher real estate rate in Roanoke County may also be driven by the county’s high per capita expenditures for public safety. According to “Expenditures and Population: Virginia Auditor of Public Accounts Comparative Cost Report for FY 2006,” per capita cost for public safety was four times that of Montgomery County (which has approximately the same population and is about 50 percent larger in geography).
In addition, Albemarle County, which is identical in population and about three times the size of Roanoke County, spends about 20 percent less for public safety.
“Definitely one of the reasons why real estate taxes are too high is to pay for public safety,” Elswick says. “While public safety is very important, I think we have gone overboard with some of the capital expenditures in this area. Based on the expenditures by similar counties, we are spending more than we should.”
One way to look at county expenditures is to compare population and spending. Weldon-Cooper figures show county population increasing from about 79,000 in 1990 to 93,000 in 2009 (17 percent; the county’s own figures for both years are slightly lower). Over the same period, the total Roanoke County budget (including school expenditures) has increased from $148 million in 1990 to $371 million in 2009 (150 percent increase). Per capita spending for the overall budget has risen from $1,873 to $3,989 (vs $837 to $2,088 omitting school spending).
Citizens on the watch
And while Elswick is hopeful that people will begin to take more control of the county’s spending, he’s worried they will not.
“I hope people will start taking control of their own destiny,” he says. “I am not running for county supervisor for my own personal advancement. When you see government wasting money, at all levels of government – when you see institutions borrowing more money than they should, it’s time to say enough is enough.” Elswick has hopes for the nascent anti-tax “tea party” movement to have an effect in that direction.
“I hope the basic tenet of the tea party takes over. My only concern is that the politicians are taking over the tea parties – which could change what the originators had in mind. I think if the politicians take over, the people will stop attending, since the politicians continue saying the same things. I think the people are looking for someone that is different.” That “different” for Elswick comes down to a careful, systematic process.
“It’s a simple thing to do,” he says. “You look at all areas of government, every office, every individual. You look at the functions of government, and ask the question: Do we really need to spend that money?
“Businesses reduce cost wherever they can – we need the same approach in the county.”
Still, Elswick is not naïve about obstacles to such an approach.
“Every government office is trying to protect its own job, so it requires close scrutiny on each department. And what makes uncovering wasteful spending more difficult is that every elected official wants to be reelected, so they don’t want to say or do anything that would possibly jeopardize their next election.”
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