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Special elections cost whether taxes pass

Charges for touch-screen machines going up

 

January 13, 2007

Terry Oblander and Angela Townsend

Plain Dealer Reporters

 

February's special elections are going to cost some taxpayers a bundle - even if the taxes don't pass.

 

That's because school districts and municipalities seeking tax increases in some counties are going to have to pay twice as much as they did last year for putting their issues before voters at special elections, which are elections that are not subsidized by the state government.

 

Some elections directors, particularly those operating with touch-screen voting machines, say their charges for special elections are rising because of the rising costs associated with modern voting systems, including delivering and setting up machines, building rentals and custodial fees, the paper that backs up the touch- screen voting and training sessions.

 

Trustees in Lake County's Madison Township are trying to decide whether to pay big bucks to put a renewal police levy on the May 8 ballot or wait until November, when it will cost the township nothing.

 

In 2005, Madison trustees split the $7,800 cost of a May 3 special election with the Lake County School Finance District that also had an issue on the same ballot. That was a cost of about $650 per precinct. Two years later, it could cost the district as much as $24,000, or $2,000 per precinct.

 

Police Chief Gerald Jenkins said his 17 full-time policemen serve 19,500 residents and patrol 40 square miles.

 

The replacement tax headed for the ballot currently represents $288,551 of his $1.6 million department budget. It would increase taxes by another $271,000.

 

So the township officials weigh the choices: Pay special election costs now and have a second chance at the voters if the levy fails. Or, wait until November and lose 16 percent of the police budget if the issue fails.

 

"Quite honestly, it's an unbelievable situation," Chief Gerald Jenkins said.

 

Cuyahoga County Elections Director Michael Vu said his staff has begun working to determine how much more to charge for special elections. Cuyahoga now charges $800 per precinct, but Vu said he could see that amount jumping as high as $1,200.

 

In Medina County, some officials have urged the county commissioners to postpone their plans to put a 0.5 percent sales tax on the May ballot to pay for school permanent improvements. At an estimated $1,200 for each of the county's 150 precincts, the cost could hit $180,000, although Elections Di rector Sue Strasser said the final bill would probably be less.

 

And in Geauga County, the commissioners have agreed they will not put any countywide issues on the ballot because of the high cost, said Commissioner William Young. In 2003, the county paid about $80,000 to stage an August special election for 0.5-mill mental health issue that was approved. That breaks down to $10.68 for each of the 7,491 votes cast in 96 precincts.

 

Summit County Elections Director Bryan Williams, where special election costs are expected to stay at about $600 a precinct, questions how counties like Medina and Lake can justify those kinds of charge backs. He said he has followed state law closely and cannot charge back any more than about $600.

 

But Strasser said the costs are bound to be lower in counties like Summit where paper ballots are counted by optical scanners. Counties like hers, which use the touch-screen voting system, experience higher costs associated with transportation, technical support, poll-worker training and supplies, she said.

 

Williams said tax opponents often seize on the cost of special elections and make it one more argument to vote against taxes.

 

"It's the cherry on the sundae," he said.

 

Levy critics can argue that the extra spending is another example of unwise spending by a district, said Bruce Keller, Vermilion schools superintendent. But, that $10,000 or $15,000 in special elections cost is "not the one thing that's going to make or break you."

 

Willoughby-Eastlake Superintendent Keith Miller said that his district usually tries to put issues on the May ballot when other organizations are also on the ballot. His district plans to put a renewal property tax that raises about $4.7 million a year on the May ballot.

 

"In May, if it doesn't pass, we could still get August and November as backups," he said. "But if we wait until November to put it on the ballot and our levy expires and the levy fails, you don't have another chance that year."

 

Sheffield-Sheffield Lake Superintendent Will Folger said he felt that higher charges for special elections would probably limit the number of times a district would go to the ballot - and that "would cause problems."

 

In the May 3, 2005, primary election, Folger's district approved an additional tax after eight straight defeats over 10 years for additional tax issues. The district lost in three special elections that it paid for and six regularly scheduled elections where it cost the district nothing.

 

To reach these Plain Dealer reporters:

toblander@plaind.com, 800-683-7348

 

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