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Commissioner questions Washington Co. Election Commission budget

August 27th, 2012 1:32 pm by Gary B. Gray

Commissioner questions Washington Co. Election Commission budget

The Washington County Election Commission’s 2012-13 fiscal budget of about $840,000 is 39 percent above last year and 32 percent above the 2008-09 budget, a comparable, apples-to-apples election year.
The original request was about $1 million.
Ethan Flynn, a county commissioner and Budget Committee member, said this week that he’s anxious to get the county’s budget wrapped up, but he has concerns about nearly $450,000 budgeted for personal services (a 35 percent increase over last year) and just more than $236,000 for contracted services (a 46 percent increase over last year).
He also said he felt Election Commission members thwarted his efforts to meet with him to discuss their budget and was treated with disrespect by a commissioner when he sat in on one of their meetings.
It’s not uncommon to see a rise and fall in the amount of money budgeted each year for county election commissions, since the number of elections, candidates, poll workers, training, voting machine maintenance and postage will fluctuate depending on the workload.
Administrator of Elections Maybell Stewart said the increases basically are due to a greater number of elections, and County Mayor Dan Eldridge said he was OK with the Election Commission budget but also will keep in mind going forward that the budget is a “living” document that can change as the year runs its course.
Do the math, and you’ll find that with the county’s 74,000 registered voters, the cost per voter this fiscal year is $11.35. That is what Stewart and the Election Commission has predicted it will cost to handle the Aug. 2 state primary and county general election, which has since passed, the Nov. 6 presidential and the April city election.
Sullivan County’s per registered voter cost is $7.44, though it has 86,000 registered voters. One of the main reasons in the cost difference is that Sullivan County has 25 precincts compared to Washington County’s 40, and all concerned say attention needs to be given to the possible reduction of that number.
On Aug. 16, Flynn emailed fellow Budget Committee members and expressed his concern over the increased amounts in contracted services and personal services. He also pointed out that Sullivan County was budgeting FY 2012-13 at a significantly lower cost per registered voter in spite of its 12,000 more voters.
He told the Johnson City Press this week that he had scheduled a meeting with Stewart and Election Commission members but was called last week and told the meeting was off. Flynn said Stewart told him the meeting would violate the Sunshine Law. This would be the case only if the Election Commission met in a quorum to conduct public business and failed to provide adequate notice of the meeting.
Flynn decided to attend one of the Election Commission’s public meetings.
“I went to their public meeting and I was insulted by one of the commissioners and they refused to talk about the budget,” he said. “They were disrespectful, but I don’t want to get personal.”
He chose not to identify specific members.
“They said they don’t need to meet because the mayor told them their budget was OK,” he said. “Also, I really don’t think they know how many voting machines they have. I requested a week ago an official number and they gave me a number on a sticky note. I specifically asked Maybell to reply to my email and she said she would, but she hasn’t.
“And how are we spending $236,000 on contracted services when Sullivan County is spending about $85,000? I’d like to see us under $10 per registered voter.”
Stewart confirmed Flynn asked to meet with the Election Commission.
“At first, they agreed they would meet with him,” she said. “But later some members said they preferred not to because the budget already was finished. Jon Ruetz (member) and Janet Willis (chairwoman) told me that there wasn’t anything more they could cut. I told Mr. Flynn that a couple people on the Election Commission may not want to meet with him.”
She said the increases this year will be used to match a rise in expenditures.
“We have three elections in this cycle, and that means we’ll need more election officials, who get $100 per day,” she said. “We have to advertise more, and it costs more to pay for technicians who work on the voting machines. Next year the cycle will be down again. For example, we spent $25,000 last year on mandatory legal notices. This year we plan to spend $40,000.”
She said her full-time staff will receive the same 2 percent salary increase that the county has proposed for all employees across the board.
Flynn also questioned why the line item for the administrators’ salary is $67,543 when Stewart, who still has not taken and passed the test to become state certified, makes $51,300.
Eldridge said the higher number has been allocated in anticipation of Stewart gaining certification.
“I’m not discounting Ethan’s concerns about costs,” Eldridge said. “But our priority is this presidential election cycle. One thing Maybell has committed to me is that if money doesn’t have to be spent, it will not be spent. This is her first election cycle, and I want to make sure her focus is on the election.”
He also said the state reimburses the county for the difference in Stewart’s salary once she is certified.
Stewart was appointed to replace Connie Sinks on April 10.
She had been serving as interim administrator since commissioners voted 3-2 on Feb. 10 to fire Sinks from the post after more than 28 years.
Stewart was unanimously elected to serve as interim just minutes after Sinks was fired by Ruetz, Willis and Thomas Graham.

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