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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Vanguard Looks At Increasing Election Costs

Tonight, the Davis School Board will most likely vote to pass an election consolidation measure which will move school board elections to the November General Elections as opposed to the current arrangement of the November Election in odd years.

The overriding factor here is cost and the rising cost imposed on the school district by the County has made this move necessary. Because the other districts in the county have already moved their elections to even years, the school district would have to bear full cost of running an election.

Last year that cost rose to $585,622 for the 2007 election county-wide. It is unlikely that the district would have to pay that full amount and estimate suggest closer to the $300,000, but part of that will depend on increasing costs from the county which if they continue at the current rate, could push the cost much higher.

DJUSD officials were stunned in February for instance when they got the bill for the November 2007 and found it to be $155,420, a more than three-fold increase over the 2005 election. Far more than they budgeted.

The Vanguard now takes a closer at these rising costs. The first graph and chart show the increasing costs for running elections since 2000.

In 2003, the total cost was $88,000 of which DJUSD bore $52,000. That cost rose to $319,000 in 2005, remember in 2005 was the Governor's initiatives and Measure X, as a result, even with the rising cost, DJUSD only paid $47,000. That changed in 2007 when the cost increased by a huge order of magnitude. County-wide it was just under $600,000 of which Davis paid over $150,000.

These increases were somewhat baffling since the cost of doing business may have gone up, but certainly not by half a million over four years.

When we examine the breakdown of the costs we get a far better picture of what is going on.

In 2003, the county only passed on a fraction of the costs to local jurisdictions. The biggest costs were all direct costs for running the election. The county charged $46,000 for its printing and $15,000 for its election night staff. A small portion of that cost was $10,000 to staff and salaries.

In order to highlight the changes, I have color coded the changes for 2005 and 2007. Coded in blue are huge increases in cost from 2003 to 2005 and coded in red are huge increases in cost from 2005 to 2007.

What we see in 2005 is largely what appears to be a fuller bearing of election night costs from the county to the jurisdictions holding election. So you have a huge increase in the cost of election night staff, printing, postage, and drayage (the cost of trucking the polling equipment around). One exception was a nearly seven-fold increase in the cost of staff salaries and wages.

In 2007, we see that trend continue, but now they are asking local jurisdiction to bear what appear to be fixed costs. There was an increase in drayage costs, but the other increases were mainly fixed costs with the exception of extra help salaries, wages, and overtime which the county charged for the first time.

But you see now $154,800 in staff salaries and $58,000 in benefits. Overtime appears to be an additional cost. But you have over $200,000 in costs passed on to the local jurisdictions for what appears to be normal operating costs to the election's office. It is hard to evaluate the line for indirect election costs, also a new line for 2007.

What appears to be happening is that with the county facing revenue problems, they have simply passed along the costs to other jurisdictions. That seems reasonable. But they are making those jurisdictions that utilize specific services that year bare the full costs of running the department, costs that would be incurred regardless of whether or not they held an election.

The consequence has been to force most jurisdictions into the general election where the costs are shared across jurisdictions, but for Davis this comes at a cost.

Board Member Richard Harris adamantly believes that it is wrong to vote to extend his term. I do not agree with him fully on this issue, but he clearly feels very strongly about it, strongly enough that it appears he will resign after his fourth year. The county's revenue crunch appears to be the culprit here, but the cost-bearing apparatus should be examined.

Perhaps a more equitable distribution of costs would be a more fair way to go. After all, the elections office will still operate in 2009 with its basic staffing level regardless of what DJUSD decides to do here. So the question as to why they should pass along fixed costs to DJUSD seems appropriate? Perhaps this is something that should be more closely evaluated.

Earlier this week, the County Clerk's Office announced the hiring a new chief deputy, Andrea Jones, who had previously worked as Supervisor Mariko Yamada's chief deputy. The position had been open it appears for at least six months, meaning that the election's office functioned through the highest turnout election in recent years without someone filling this position. Given the cost cutting mode of the county and given the new policies by the County Clerk's office, perhaps, this position would have been better off staying vacant. After all, is there not a basic hiring freeze in place in the county, and if there is not, shouldn't there be?

---David M. Greenwald reporting