Straying into the issue is like stepping into the wild, a mess of state and federal compliance measures and no shortage of confusion as to how to pay for them all.
Storm water management promises to be one of the first critical, complex issues the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors will tackle in the new year. And for the local candidates who earn enough votes in November to take seats on the board, there will be a learning curve.
County officials have said they expect to stomach at least $5 million in expenses to meet an oncoming wave of mandates, with the cost of any future requirements and recurring expenses still undetermined.
With that in mind, four of the five candidates running for seats on the board claim they would not support increasing the real estate tax rate or starting a utility fee to cover those costs, looking instead at pulling dollars from the general government budget.
None, though, gave specific ideas of how they would tweak the budget to make room for the additional expenditure.
Only one candidate, independent Ed Elswick, has said he would "more than likely" support starting a utility fee to prepare for future costs. As the only incumbent running, Elswick is also the one candidate who has been knee-deep in discussions about the issue, of which he has taken part by attending supervisor work sessions.
Despite a frenzy within local government over how to prepare for and pay for necessary infrastructure changes, the remaining four candidates speak optimistically when approached about the issue on the campaign trail. Republicans Joe McNamara and Al Bedrosian, along with Democrat Brian Lang, share the same message as they speak at forums and go door-to-door. Even independent Gary Jarrell, given the endorsement of outgoing Supervisor Richard Flora, joined the chorus.
"I think we can manage that without incurring any new fees," Lang said, at a recent forum in Hollins.
But behind the rhetoric are numbers, and for many with an intimate knowledge of the county budget, there remains deep skepticism of the idea that the general fund could sustain a $5 million hit without county residents noticing diminished quality in government services.
This year, the general government budget amounts to about $171 million, with about $84.5 million going to schools, county debt and internal services such as transfer for risk management and workers compensation, according to numbers provided by the county.
That leaves about $86.5 million for discretionary spending, which includes the operating budgets for all county service departments. Already downsized departments use about $55 million to pay for personnel and benefits. Public safety, solid waste pickup and social services make up another $13.1 million in expenses. That leaves about $18 million, which is used to pay for building maintenance, parks and recreation services, constitutional offices and the Roanoke County Sheriff's Office, among other things.
After reviewing the county ledgers, Director of Management and Budget Brent Robertson said he suspected that if storm water management was paid for using current general fund numbers, residents would notice a difference.
"To not have any impact on services, I would find that a very difficult task," Robertson said.
When asked about the other candidates staking positions against a fee or rate increase, Elswick demurred, shaking his head.
"They haven't gone through the budgets like I have," he said. "You can't get familiar with the intimate details of a budget until after you're elected."
Of the four who bristle at the idea of a utility fee or rate increase, Bedrosian has emerged as the most outspoken about pushing against some of the requirements, despite the threat of six-figure penalties that could be imposed upon the county by the state and federal governments.
"Our job is to push back a little bit against the state and federal government," he said. "I think that Roanoke County needs to reduce the amount of money on projects that we shouldn't be involved in, and that money can be used."
Meet the candidates
AL BEDROSIAN, Hollins District
Xerox salesman, Republican
He won his party's nomination by chance. After a tie in the primary process, Bedrosian's name (written on a tongue depressor) was drawn from a pillowcase. He's been described by some in the local tea party as "the perfect candidate" — a straight-talker willing to don a butcher's smock when approaching county expenditures. Bedrosian has said he will strive to reduce the county's debt and tax rates. As a means of achieving that goal, he's proposed halting capital projects, cutting county departments by 2 percent across the board, and diminishing the role of the very seat for which he's running.
In 1999, he lost a bid for a seat in the state House of Delegates.
Boldest Idea: Would stop funding capital projects — and other projects — with borrowed money.
Biggest Misstep: Has said he's willing to get the county involved in a potentially expensive legal battle to change the current policy on prayer at public meetings.
Endearing Quality: A straight-talker to a fault, no matter the potential for embarrassment.
What Will Grate on You: The interfusing of his faith and politics, depending on perspective.
At the End of the Day: A forthright member of the conservative wing of his party with a mind trained on dollars. Will go against the grain if it means ending spending borrowed dollars, even at the expense of capital projects.
GARY JARRELL, Hollins District
Owner of Valley Boiler, independent
As the independent in a three-way race with a relatively small pool of voters, Jarrell holds one wild card: the endorsement of outgoing Roanoke County Supervisor Richard Flora. Whether it will be enough to lure Republican voters to his camp remains to be seen. A policy wonk with more than a decade of experience on the county's planning commission, a vote for Jarrell could be seen as a vote for the status quo.
Boldest Idea: We're still waiting ...
Biggest Misstep: In a race of two moderates against a tea party conservative, Jarrell has not yet distinguished himself from Democrat Brian Lang.
Endearing Quality: A dedicated fan of Floyd Fest, he's willing to talk about all types of music if you're willing to ask.
What Will Grate on You: He plays it safe.
At the End of the Day: Jarrell's familiar with the ins and outs of county government from his years on the planning commission. So far, Jarrell has run a cautious campaign, risking voter familiarity with his positions.
BRIAN LANG, Hollins District
Mechanical engineer, Democrat
Despite a past fraught with legal disputes and traffic tickets (all resolved), Lang is seeking to become a center-left voice on a board traditionally occupied by conservatives. In his bid to appeal to voters across Hollins, Lang has been the only candidate to set forth an ambitious plan to establish an identifiable center for the district — forged together with a proposal for a new library, farmers market and added connectivity to Hollins University. Just one candidate in a three-way race, his success will depend on the number of votes he can lure away from Republican Al Bedrosian and independent Gary Jarrell.
Boldest Idea: Wants to lay the groundwork for a multimillion dollar economic and social hub in Hollins, starting with a new library.
Biggest Misstep: Despite years at the helm of the Roanoke County Democrats, Lang was unable to heal the fractures within his own party. Most recently, a faction of still-unhappy Democrats helped compile and distribute anti-Lang literature across the district.
Endearing Quality: His determination to establish more dog parks in the county will certainly win a sector of the canine vote.
What Will Grate on You: He downplays the leadership struggles he faced within his own party.
At the End of the Day: A wild-card moderate Democrat and anti-Bedrosian option for voters. He could walk away with a win — or perhaps split the district vote enough to hand a win to the Republicans.
ED ELSWICK, Windsor Hills District
The Windsor Hills incumbent who swapped his Republican ties for independent status in 2010. Elswick's time on the board has been largely spent examining the cross-section of property and commercial development. Among his pet projects, Elswick has fought vigorously against the county's current policy on wind energy — a fight so bitter he once walked out of a board meeting.
Boldest Idea: Elswick has tried to alter the process by which the planning commission works, creating more steps in the process in hopes more citizens will engage.
Biggest Misstep: Many Windsor Hills voters have said they still remember the September 2011 board of supervisors meeting when he wasn't getting his way during a discussion about wind energy policy. They don't remember it kindly.
Endearing Quality: Even when his ambitions have been convoluted, Elswick's end goals have been to protect the comforts of individual citizens.
What Will Grate on You: It's a struggle for Elswick to lose a debate with grace.
At the End of the Day: A stubborn advocate for individual property rights whose methods for pushing his causes frequently leave fellow board members bristling.
JOE McNAMARA, Windsor Hills
Owner of Katie's Ice Cream and Chocolate and the Salem Ice Cream Parlor, Republican
Locked in a fight to regain his old seat on the board, McNamara is seeking to remove the man who supplanted him in 2009. With a keen mind for budgets and figures, he has argued that voters should look to his experience when considering whether to support him. He does not cringe at mention of capital projects, but stresses a tight budget-management style.
Boldest Idea: He's not presented any, instead staking an interest in staying the course.
Biggest Misstep: When speaking to voters at forums, McNamara has focused almost entirely on his previous stint on the board, leaving little for voters curious about his aims for the future.
Endearing Quality: The man sells ice cream for a living.
What Will Grate on You: It's clear his experience gives him insight to the mechanics of government, but McNamara can rarely express his ideas and positions without straying deep into the weeds of an issue.
At the End of the Day: A moderate Republican with years of prior experience on the board. How that experience will affect his ideas for the future remains unclear.