The Morning Call
December 26, 2005
U.S. wants county to fund half of $1.2 million. So far, the answer is no.
By Matt Birkbeck
Of The Morning Call
It was a year ago when the Monroe County commissioners drew a line in the sand and announced they would not allocate county funds to help pay for new voting machines mandated by the Help America Vote Act.
Last week the commissioners made good on their promise, approving a $75 million county budget for 2006 but deciding against raising taxes to pay the estimated $600,000 to cover their share of the $1.2 million needed to replace 120 lever voting machines.
''We've budgeted no county money and we're not kicking in any cash,'' said Commissioner Chairwoman Donna Asure. ''We are looking at meeting the HAVA requirements by any other means other than costing local taxpayers.''
With a Jan. 1 deadline days away and no local funds in place, the commissioners know they are treading on dangerous ground, opening themselves up to a fight with the federal government. It is the only county in Pennsylvania to refuse to use local funding to pay for voting machines.
The Justice Department warned the commissioners a year ago that they ''must obey the law'' and could face a lawsuit if they don't comply.
But the commissioners remain as undaunted today as they did then, firmly resolved against paying for what they say is an unfunded mandate.
''We are trying to follow the regulations without raising taxes or breaking the law, and we know it will be a challenge,'' Asure said.
Passed by Congress in 2002 to modernize voting machines and avoid vote-counting errors, the act authorized $3.2 billion from the federal government to distribute among the 50 states to meet the mandate.
Pennsylvania's Department of State received $53 million to split among its 67 counties, which amounts to roughly $8,000 per voting precinct.
Some counties, such as Carbon, received enough money to pay the entire cost for new machines while others, such as Bucks, will have to spend millions in county funds.
''We had problems with the legislation and discussed it with everyone from the governor on down, and it was apparent to us that we had to comply with it,'' Bucks County Commissioner Charles H. Martin said.
Martin said it could cost Bucks as much as $7 million to replace its lever voting machines, and the money will come from a bond issue.
''We were happy as clams with our lever machines, which did a good job,'' Martin said. ''But acting on the advice of our attorneys, we didn't fight this and risk the $3.1 million we're getting in HAVA funds, so whatever we are doing we are doing reluctantly.''
The Monroe commissioners passed a resolution Wednesday to spend their $600,000 in HAVA funding, but they are looking at options other than buying new voting machines.
Among the solutions being mulled is leasing, Asure said.
''It's an option,'' Asure said. ''We're certainly trying to be creative.''
Brian McDonald, a spokesman for the state Department of State, said it doesn't matter how Monroe or any other county replaces its voting machines, as long as they have a HAVA-compliant system in place for the spring primary.
''Whatever method they want to use to get the machines is fine,'' McDonald said.
But McDonald cautioned that the HAVA money is a one-time grant, and if the county spends its money on a lease, then it will have to pay the entire cost of buying machines or a new lease.
''There will be no additional funding available. It's a one-time supply of funds,'' McDonald said.
Asure said she will support any plan that doesn't call for spending county funds, leasing or otherwise, and also took issue with other elected officials for failing to take as strong a stand.
''Unfortunately there are a lot of elected officials that will scream for unfunded mandates but not stand up,'' Asure said. ''I'm extremely disappointed that more elected officials have not hollered about how much money this is costing local taxpayers.''
Copyright © 2005, The Morning Call
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