St. Charles County, MO Refunds Election Overcharges

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[Image courtesy of townmapsusa]

I’ve written a couple of times in the past about the success of St. Charles County, MO in using local leases of election equipment to fund new purchases – but a recent story highlights how that system may have overcharged local governments. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Political Fix has more:

The county has refunded $221,367 in what an audit says were election cost overcharges to cities and other local governments.

The action was taken over the objections of County Elections Director Rich Chrismer, who disputes the findings and had refused for months to issue the refunds himself.

County Finance Director Bob Schnur said Friday that the checks were mailed Tuesday. Chrismer was notified Wednesday.

“This is the right thing to do,” said Schnur.

Chrismer said he planned to take legal action to fight the county administration’s move, which was first requested by the County Council last summer. He says state law gives him control of the fund in question.

The refunds have been a source of contention between Chrismer and county officials for several months, and the county’s unilateral action is apparently an attempt to put the issue to rest:

The refunds cover elections held from 2008 through 2013. The Francis Howell School District got the biggest refund — $34,128. That was followed by St. Peters, $31,349; the County Ambulance District, $27,397; and the Wentzville School District, $26,179. More than two dozen other governments also got refunds.

Also this week, Schnur said, $517,000 was shifted from an account Chrismer controls to another county fund.

That covers most of what the audit said were the elections office’s overcharges of the county government itself for its share of election costs.

Though Chrismer had balked at making refunds to the local governments, in May he did return $113,000 in federal and state grants to the Missouri secretary of state’s office.

That was after a state review concluded that the grants were for election expenses also covered by some payments from local governments.

The county says the overcharges are the result of a mistake in the formula for allocating election costs:

Schnur said he believed that the overcharges were due to mistakes by Chrismer’s office over the years and weren’t intentional.

“There’s no fraud here,” he said. He said he believed cost-sharing formulas set up a few years ago had “gone wild” and “just weren’t monitored.”

While Chrismer says the loss of the funds won’t affect his office’s ability to conduct the April elections, the transfers will reduce the amount of money available for future county election purchases.

I find this story fascinating because it highlights how efforts to share election costs between levels of government and across jurisdictional borders can be both an opportunity and a problem. On the one hand, having a cost-sharing system is a great chance for election offices to make sure that every participant is not only internalizing but paying their costs – but as with any such system, there are bound to be disputes when it comes time to divide the bill.

This likely isn’t over yet; if Chrismer follows through on his threat to file suit, we may get a closer looks at the allocation formulas at issue in this dispute.

Stay tuned …

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