Under new federal mandate, expenses could increase fourfold for municipalities
By JORDAN CARLEO-EVANGELIST, Staff writer
First published: Tuesday, October 18, 2005
ALBANY -- Ask Guilderland Supervisor Kenneth Runion about sticker shock and he'll tell you about the price of democracy in Albany County next year.
Across the county, local leaders are poring through their recently inked budgets in hopes of finding hundreds of thousands of dollars they never expected to spend on elections.
A new federal mandate that puts counties in charge of most local elections next year also means some municipalities will be paying as much as four times more for them, according to a recent letter from County Executive Michael Breslin. They'll owe nearly $1.7 million, combined.
Local officials want answers. Specifically, Runion asked in a letter to Breslin, why will it cost the county 220 percent more to run an election in Guilderland than it previously cost the town?
County officials insist the spikes are just estimates, stemming from the impending federal Help America Vote Act that fundamentally changes the way the elections will be run.
But some mayors and supervisors, faced with raising taxes or raiding their savings, seem on the verge of a mini revolt against the county Board of Elections.
"I have no intention of paying it, to be honest with you," said Cohoes Mayor John T. McDonald III, whose cash-strapped city budgeted $21,000 for election-related costs in 2006 but, according to Breslin's letter, will owe $87,436.
Similar letters arrived in executive offices from Newtonville to Delmar.
"I could effectively pay all of our elections inspectors four times what they're getting now and still come in under that number," Runion said of the $191,789 that Guilderland will be charged by Albany County. "That's a little ridiculous."
The letter, dated Oct. 5, came the week after cities and towns released their tentative 2006 budgets.
"The timing is just so poor," said Colonie Supervisor Mary Brizzell. Her town will be on the hook for $446,491, instead of the budgeted $90,000.
When Colonie released its $77 million budget this month it sought to avoid using savings to plug holes. Now the town might have to do that, or borrow, to keep taxes from going even higher, Brizzell said.
Smaller towns fear there may be no way to prevent taxpayers from feeling the hit.
"There's really no option," said Supervisor Ed Clark of New Scotland, which will owe more than $48,000, instead of the roughly $12,800 he projected. "The only way to make up for this is to cut services, raise taxes or take it out of reserves. And we don't have plentiful reserves," Clark said. "It's a real shock to the system."
HAVA is meant to make the voting system uniform, reliable and fair after glitches dinged the integrity of Florida's elections in 2000. New York got more than $220 million in federal money, of which Albany County received $3.9 million to buy 600 new voting machines and train election workers to use them, said James M. Clancy, the county's Democratic elections commissioner.
The county also will take over a slew of administrative tasks from cities and towns, including paying 1,500 Election Day workers and maintaining, moving and storing the voting machines, Clancy said. It will also hire eight full-time workers, with benefits, to help, he said.
The law allows counties to recoup these costs. But state election law does not specify how they should do it.
Starting next year, Schenectady County will assess residents directly on their tax bills for the service, leaving cities and towns out of the process completely, said Democratic Election Commissioner Robert Brehm. Rensselaer County does something similar, waiting a year to see how much was spent before asking taxpayers for anything back.
Albany County has chosen to bill towns directly because it is a logical extension of the way the system works now: Towns pay for their own elections, said Kerry Battle, a spokeswoman for Breslin.
What Runion and others don't understand is why it will cost Albany County so much more to do to the job. Also, they bristle at the notion that the town should raise taxes while the county boasts of a zero percent tax increase.
"It becomes a deficit reduction for the county," said Niskayuna Supervisor Luke Smith, echoing a cynical sentiment a few Albany leaders express only privately: that maybe the county is saddling cities and towns with more than their fair share.
"If the county is imposing this, maybe it should be a county tax," said Bethlehem Supervisor Theresa Egan.
Egan and others have asked for a breakdown of what's being spent on their behalf. The $1.7 million was spread across the 13 cities and towns based on population.
"One would think that if you streamline the process ... you would save money," said Cohoes' Comptroller Michael Durocher.
But Brehm said it isn't that simple.
"It's not apples to apples," he said. "We're not doing the same things the same way with the same equipment." The new electronic voting machines, which have yet to be chosen, will require more specialized care and storage, he said.
"The old lever machines, you could pretty much leave them where they are and two weeks before the election dust them off, crank them up and they would work," he said.
Other increases come from the fact that some municipalities pay election workers less than others, Clancy said. To attract people to the jobs, the county has budgeted to pay all workers a uniform rate that is higher than most currently pay -- $225 for training and working the primary and Election Day.
Clancy stressed that the numbers were the best estimates his office could offer.
"I understand the municipalities and what they have to do, and I appreciate that this is not easy," he said, adding that his own budget will double to $2.8 million next year. Brehm said his budget also, will double, to $1.1 million.
Still, some local officials were left hoping the numbers they were looking at were a mistake.
"I wish it was," he said. "It's not a typo."
All Times Union materials copyright 1996-2005, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.
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