Facing higher election costs, Richland council chafes

Don’t expect county to pay bigger bills after Nov. 6 debacle, members say January 25, 2013 

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— Richland County Council members, frustrated over paying for an election office beyond their control, want legislators to stop sending them the bills for state-mandated services.

Councilman Seth Rose suggested the county refuse to pay for expensive new voting machines, additional staff or renting buildings for Election Day polling places.

Councilman Jim Manning said any property-tax increase resulting from state-ordered services should be labeled “the local legislative delegation funding tax.”

And Councilman Bill Malinowski said it’s just not fair for the county to “keep sucking it up” when the state Legislature hasn’t been paying its way with the Local Government Fund. Under the state funding formula, Richland County should get $18 million this coming year, but “that’s a pipe dream,” Councilman Greg Pearce said.

The turmoil came out as the council discussed upcoming budget issues at an annual retreat Thursday.

While the county pays for the election and voter registration office, county legislators have called the shots on staff and salary.

Some council members said Thursday that bigger bills for the elections office are inevitable.

But others said they’re not prepared to pay more for the office that bungled the Nov. 6 election, at that time led by Lillian McBride. Some voters were forced to wait in line up to seven hours while others gave up in frustration.

Since then, McBride has stepped down but is staying on in a $74,600 position created especially for her by the Board of Elections & Voter Registration.

Now, council may be faced with paying for her successor. A salary has not been set. Board officials say McBride’s job is being funded with money for a different position that was never filled.

In another approach to fixing problems, state and county election authorities have started to look at creating 20 new precincts, requiring expensive new voting machines. The changes may have to be in place by November, when the city of Columbia holds a municipal election.

Councilman Damon Jeter wanted to go on record against adding precincts.

“I don’t see how new precincts fix whatever problems we had,” he said. “Why would you want more of them? Cause more confusion for voters.”

Jeter also said he’s not prepared to give the elections office more money — a sentiment shared by Rose and Pearce. “I would say find it in the current budget to make it work,” he said.

Rose noted that when legislators merged the elections office with voter registration in 2011, it ended up costing taxpayers $400,000 extra.

The county has asked all offices to submit proposed 2013-14 budgets by today. The elections and voter registration board meets at 11 a.m. to discuss its budget.

Some members of the council, however, said they just want to do whatever it takes to make sure there’s not another election fiasco.

“We’re going to be faced with a pretty big bill,” Councilman Norman Jackson said. “We may wish it away, but it ain’t gonna happen.”

And chairman Kelvin Washington said County Council should just make it clear to legislators that they want to be part of discussions that would have a budget impact at the county level.

State and county election authorities are devising a plan to split the county’s oversized precincts – mostly in the northeast, northwest and southeast areas. They say those precincts far exceed the state-mandated standard of 1,500 registered voters per precinct.

Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.

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