Drilling Down on the “Cost of Democracy” in Hastings, NE

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[Image courtesy of dealbreaker]

I’ve covered the issue of special election costs in great detail on this blog, but a new piece from NBC Nebraska’s Shelby Fenster takes the time to drill down on the issue in a single town (Hastings, NE) and figure out what it costs to hold such elections – and why:

Putting pen to paper and signing a check for $40,000. The thought may almost make you[] squirm. But it’s decisions like that our counties, cities and school districts make every year. And in making those decisions, they have to weigh costs. When is one thing worth more than another?

From 9th Street to school bonds, over the last couple of years, Central Nebraska has seen several special elections. But those elections don’t come without a price tag. And if the money is going to ballots and polling places– there’s something else that’s not getting it. So, we reached out to your city’s leaders, and to the people who run your children’s schools, to find out.

What’s great about the piece is that it first looks at the cost components of special elections, especially scheduling:

In 2014, both Hastings and Grand Island voted to approve multimillion dollar school bond issues. And, while the outcome may be the same, they took very different routes to get there.

“Bond elections are more complicated than people may think,” said Kautz.

Kautz says they took everything into consideration. But choosing to put the question on the primary election ballot, rather than a special election, came down to dollars and cents.

“We’re always looking for ways to save money. We think that was a very cheap election in comparison to the cost of other elections,” he added.

Just how cheap? $617.40– and that includes the School Board election. So, Adams County Election Commissioner Ramona Thomas says the estimate for just the bond election is closer to a mere 300 bucks.

The same year, Grand Island Public Schools opted to forgo taking advantage of those set election days and hold a special election– even if it meant a bigger bill.

“First and foremost it was about engagement. Second, of course, I think any organization wants to be successful,” said Virgil Harden, Grand Island Public Schools [GIPS] Director of Business.

Not only did GIPS want the spotlight on their $70 million bond issue, not wanting to compete with other issues on the ballot, but Harden says they also had a strict timeline.

“You might imagine that when school starts, parents tend to have good feelings about school and so its no surprise that elections that are held in September, August time-frame have a higher success rate,” he said.

And just how hefty of a check did GIPS have to write? It was to the tune of $41,872.28. That’s nearly 140 times the cost of Hastings’s election cost. So where’d that big chunk of change come from? Not from the books in your kids’ classrooms, or the food at the lunch-line.

“The school board has a budget. So they pay for things like attorneys and insurance and thinks like that. So they scheduled money in there every year,” said Harden.

But then, Fenster goes a little further and asks: why does it matter? Do voters realize that when they approve a special election it will come with extra costs – and are they willing to pay them?

[L]et’s go back to that question at the heart of the matter– the extent of voter input.

“A lot of people make the argument that the more people are heard, the better the policies made, and the better the economy, the better the community. That said, I think there’s a fine line that you can cross where all of a sudden, you’re asking people to vote on every issue,” said Dr. Robert Amyot, Chair of the Political Science Department at Hastings College.

And the biggest issue lately? Closing 9th Street in Hastings.

After City Council unanimously voted to close a one block stretch of the street, a group of petitioners said not so fast. They gathered more than the required 3,000 signatures to send the issue to the people.

“You have to respect that whether you agree or disagree with their position on the closure of the street. You have to respect the process. It’s the law of the land and so we’re worked through that process,” said Joe Patterson, Hastings City Administrator.

In working through the process, City Council was faced with a decision: wait until the next scheduled election or hold a special election.

“In conversations with the college, our elected officials felt, I think staff felt, that this issue needs to be resolved sooner rather than letting it linger out there for another year,” added Patterson.

But as we learned with the school bond issues– holding a special election comes with a substantially higher cost. Just how high for the City? While the exact number isn’t in yet…

“Its going to be close to $19,000,” said Patterson.

Every year, the City budgets a few hundred thousand dollars into its Contingency Fund, a category in the General Fund, for unexpected costs.

“If we had a situation where we had an unexpected storm that required a lot of hired equipment. If we totally exhausted our snow removal budget in a particular year,” explained Patterson.

But that fund is closely guarded, because it’s also the beginning cash to start the following year.

“A lot of people sign this petition not realizing this is going to cost 20 grand almost to have this question placed on the ballot,” he said.

So was it worth it to spend such a big chunk of change on a decision that had already been made Council?

“People that felt passionate about leaving it open, or people that felt passionate about closing it, would say it was money well spent. I’m kind of a bean counter guy so for me that’s two thirds of a police car but that comes with the territory,” said Patterson.

And while it may be a costly lesson, Patterson calls the process a healthy exercise for the community.

“We have a representative form of government but there are also provisions when the people don’t agree with their representatives to override those and we saw it in action in Hastings over the last six months and it works,” he added.

“You could say its a win for democracy that we have a system in place that people can challenge and can file a petition and say hold on a sec, we think you made a mistake. Let’s get everyone’s voice on this,” said Dr. Amyot.

These questions – which might not otherwise get attention outside of Hastings but are still vitally important to the people who live there – are a fantastic case study for the “cost of democracy.” Indeed, the emergence of better data (or at least awareness that elections cost money just like school buses, road repairs or public construction projects) is making these kinds of discussions as much about the value of elections as they are about the cost.

Election officials in other communities are trying to start the same conversations; here’s hoping they are as successful as their counterparts in Hastings. Thanks to Shelby Fenster and the NBC Nebraska team for producing this story; it’s valuable well beyond 9th Street !

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