No Money, Mo’ Problems: Two Arkansas Counties Deal with Financial Issues

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[Image courtesy of ihatethewayyoueatcereal]

A common theme on this blog has been the struggle of state and local election offices to manage their finances in the face of uncertain costs and tight budgets. This morning’s news brings two stories from Arkansas that illustrate what can happen when counties lose their grip on that struggle.

KAIT8 reports that Craighead County is scrambling to figure out what it’s owed by the state and localities for election costs that were unbilled by the county’s now-former election director:

Craighead County election commissioners are sorting through years’ worth of documents to find out just how much the state owes the county for unbilled elections.

The election commission held another meeting on Monday afternoon over the issue.

The county is owed for four different elections from 2013 and 2014. The commissioners don’t yet know how much money is owed.

This all started after former election coordinator, Sandra Taylor, did not bill the state for those elections. [Taylor recently resigned over the issue, which could involve $90,000 or more.]

They will also contact all eight school districts in the county to confirm how many elections they have had that they were not billed for.

There are also four municipalities that have had elections that have gone unbilled. Those are the City of Jonesboro, Brookland, Caraway and Monette.

Craighead is taking no chances, amending the job description for Taylor’s replacement to make it explicit that seeking reimbursement is a core function:

“When you have a job description that is detailed as to your duties there is no misunderstanding between the person who is performing those duties and the people who have the requirements to oversee them,” chair of the election commission Jeannette Robertson said. “In the past this was not done, and I believe that it caused some difficulties.”

The problem is even more urgent in Pope County, where the county has discovered the election commission’s annual budget is already almost gone. The Courier has more:

The Pope County Election Commission discussed budget problems with Treasurer Donna Wall during a called meeting Friday.

Wall presented commissioners and Election Coordinator Sherry Polsgrove with a detailed budget report thatshowed a commission balance of around $27 — less than 1 percent of its 2015 budget — as of Friday morning.

New Commissioner Freddie Harris asked for clarification.

“Are you saying that we’ve already used up the whole budget and we’re not even through February?” she asked.

Wall referred to the printout.

“Yes ma’am,” she said. “That $27.31 is what’s remaining. You have expended 99.86 percent of the budget.”

One problem, it seems is special elections:

Polsgrove explained that special elections led to going over budget.

“The problem is when the budget was, when the commissioners asked for their request last year, they didn’t know about January and February [elections],” she explained.

The January special election cost $20,105. The state will reimburse the county for most of the expenses, but it does not pay for an election coordinator, Polsgrove said.

The county is also discovering that personnel costs for its “part-time” coordinator and poll workers is rapidly chewing up the budget:

David Ivy, Pope County Quorum Court liaison to the commission, said another issue the commission needs to address is the election coordinator position.

“It seems like now this is becoming a full-time position,” he said. “I don’t think the [quorum] court intended for the election coordinator position to be a full-time position. How did we get here?”

Wall explained because Polsgrove had worked more than 30 hours per week on average, she was considered a full-time employee according to the Affordable Care Act, which makes her eligible for health insurance.

Ivy said that was unacceptable.

“I would highly recommend that you look either at the total hours being worked and monitor that very specifically so that you don’t get over those horizons. … Or you could go to two part-time positions,” he told the commission.

Commissioner Carol Shoptaw pointed out that special elections played a role in Polsgrove’s hours.

Ivy said having a second part-time person would be a good idea in general.

“It’s to the benefit of the commission and the county not to have just one person, whoever that is, for that position,” he said. “What happens if you get into one of these elections and something happens to that person? There’s nobody around.”

Commission Chair Portia Short said the commission will look into having two part-time coordinators after the April election.

Another problem Wall addressed with commissioners was poll workers who end up with more than 1,600 hours by the end of the year.

Wall said if a poll worker goes over on hours for the year, she has to get a W-2 form, FICA and other information on them for the full year.

Whether or not splitting the election job or limiting poll workers’ hours is a good idea (and I confess I have my doubts), at least Pope County policymakers are having their eyes opened to the “true cost of ownership” of election administration in their county.

Indeed, keeping a better grip on these outflows – just like Craighead County needs to pay closer attention to inflows – is increasingly a point of emphasis for election officials and the policymakers to whom they are responsible. These two cases may be extremes but I would imagine they are familiar to many election officials who have to watch every dollar going out – and in – in order to make sure they can do their jobs effectively.

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