Richland County Council members voiced a host of questions and concerns before tentatively approving a request for an additional $1.2 million by the county Voter Registration and Elections office Tuesday night.
The issue of supplying additional dollars to an office that has no financial accountability to county leaders struck an angry chord among a number of council members, who criticized state lawmakers for requiring that they fund numerous services while not giving the county the full funding it is supposed to receive from the state.
“I do think this is, obviously, an essential service that must be provided,” Councilman Seth Rose said. “But then the other side of this I struggle with is the fact that state law gives us no financial oversight over the office whatsoever to make sure that the funds are being spent properly.”
Without additional funds, the elections office will suffer by not being able to repair and purchase new batteries for voting machines, among other expenses, its director, Samuel Selph, has told county leaders.
Other nonrecurring costs the office says it needs to cover this year include paying for machine licensing fees mandated by the state, purchasing call center phones and four new printers to print absentee voting applications and voter registration cards.
Reimbursements from Richland County municipalities and the State Election Commission could bring in as much as $952,000 to the county, which would be redirected to the elections office to help make up the shortfall. The remainder of the $1.2 million request not covered by the reimbursements would come from the county’s general fund savings account, which already has taken an unexpected recent hit from flood recovery costs.
“This isn’t the only department that’s underfunded,” Councilman Greg Pearce said. “We budget based on revenue, and unfortunately, it’s not enough to give everybody what they want.
“It’s not that we don’t want to give you the money. It’s that we didn’t have the money to give you to begin with.”
The elections office was granted about $1.2 million in the county’s original budget, but that amount was far less than the office had requested, Selph said. It is also less than Greenville and Charleston counties’ elections and voter registrations offices operate on, though there were some concerns among council members about the accuracy and fairness of those comparisons.
Greenville County operates elections and voter registration on a $2 million annual budget, Selph said, though County Administrator Tony McDonald disputed that figure, saying it is a $1 million annual budget. Charleston County’s elections and voter registration budget is about $1.9 million for the current year, Selph and McDonald said.
Richland County municipalities, including the city of Columbia, and the State Election Commission are expected to reimburse Richland County up to $952,000 for elections before July 1. However, Selph told county leaders Tuesday those reimbursements could be as much as $200,000 less than his office originally estimated.
The city of Columbia was billed $147,481 for its November election and runoff, according to a January letter from City Clerk Erika Moore to City Manager Teresa Wilson. The amount the city was asked to pay is some $29,000 more than the city budgeted for the election. Moore wrote that she has asked Selph to consider reducing the number of non-mandatory support personnel hired to assist with elections in order to reduce costs for future elections.
Hesitating to give initial approval to the elections office’s request, Councilman Bill Malinowski questioned the responsibility of the office’s accounting and its accountability to county leaders for what it spends.
“I think before we start paying anybody’s bills that we start to see some detailed itemized listing, some receipts for these items,” Malinowski said. “And also, if those items, which they appear to me are part of a regular budget, I’m not so sure they’re budgeting their funds properly. They can claim they’re not being provided enough money, but a lot of entities in the county do that and manage to get by.”
Two more council votes are required to give final approval for the elections office.
Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.