Thursday, October 23, 2008

Big Hike In Election Costs

This article appeared in the Townsman, October 16 edition

Ulster County, October 14 2008

A letter dated October 3 sent from the Ulster County Board of Elections to the county's mayors and town supervisors announcing steep increases in charges to the municipalities for 2009 election costs has created a stir.

In most cases townships will see their elections costs at least double, in some cases quadruple. Woodstock's cost will jump from under $20,000 to $52,996. Olive will pay $36,246 and Shandaken will get tapped for $25,554 under the proposed scheme. The County election budget will climb from 2005's $442,382 to a projected $1,677,505 in 2009.

County elections officials attribute the increase to changes in New York State election law, and federal legislation, the "Help America Vote Act (HAVA)," which mandate that counties oversee elections. Additional costs include the significant increase of approximately $760,003 for personnel to maintain and service the new apparatus that will be used for all of the 164 election districts in the county.

After 2008 voters in Ulster County will cast paper ballots that will then be fed into optical character readers (OCRs), which will transmit the vote results to election officials. The OCRs are described as delicate and requiring careful storage in controlled environments. They will also require a higher level of expertise to set up and prepare for an election than needed for the mechanical lever machines that had been a mainstay for balloting for the last fifty years. Library and fire districts also will be subject to the new voting methods, according to County election officials.

The charge to the municipalities is based on their respective percentage of the total number of registered voters in the county. For instance, Woodstock, Olive and Shandaken comprise a total of 9.1% (9910) of the county's 108,418 registered voters, and will be charged 9.1% of the proposed $1,255,904 2009 budget. The municipalities will pay the county's bill from their general funds.

In response to the suddenly announced proposal supervisor John Valk, president of the Ulster County Association of Town Supervisors and Mayors (UCATSM) sent a letter dated October 9 on behalf of the association to county officials. "The Supervisors and Mayors are in shock as to such an increase in costs since it amounts to about seven to eight times what the Towns spent annually," says Valk. "Unfortunately," continues Valk, " this will no doubt close the door for any collaboration of services on the county level if this is an example of how the County will conserve costs when services are consolidated. Sorry for my sarcasm but as fiscal managers of our communities we are now being asked to pay for something we have no control over."

Woodtock supervisor Jeff Moran, when reached for comment seemed to say it all in his initial response, "Do you want a comment, a diatribe or a rant?" When told of the county's assertion that the increased costs are needed to implement federal and state mandates Moran said, "Yeah, we heard that before spending a $100 million dollars on a jail." Moran invited Ulster County legislators representing District 2, Brian Shapiro and Don Gregorius to the October 21 meeting of the Woodstock town board to explain the County's action.

Shapiro and Gregorius indicated they would very carefully study the budget prepared by the election board, and investigate whether any of the state or federal mandates are being unnecessarily exceeded.

The federal government pays only the costs for the new voting apparatus. Storage, maintenance, use, repair and replacement costs are to be borne by the locality.

Thomas Turco, one of the two Ulster County Elections commissioners, sympathized with the municipalities, but felt that the budget accurately reflected the additional costs of meeting the state and federal mandates. When asked if he were appointed "emperor of elections" would he implement the mandates his answer was, "No. I don't think Ulster County ever had any serious problem with our lever machines." He attributed the expensive changes to over-reaction to the year 2000 voting fiasco in Florida.

Ulster County has already put the municipalities on notice that their lever machines are now property of the County. The new voting apparatus is scheduled to be rolled out in 2009.

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