The great polling place controversy of 2012 — the plan born of a desire to cut spending and streamline elections — wound up costing Douglas County taxpayers about $115,000 more than expected.
To make up for the shortfall, Election Commissioner Dave Phipps had to plead to the County Board twice in the past few weeks for budget increases totaling $70,000.
But be patient. The extra costs associated with drawing precincts, then mollifying angry voters by drawing new precincts are expected to result in cheaper elections.
The brouhaha began in February, when Phipps announced he would cut the number of precincts in half to save money — a plan that also closed dozens of polling places.
“Fewer precincts means fewer poll workers, so our overall costs would decrease,” he said.
Slashing 169 precincts meant eliminating 845 poll workers. No training costs and payroll for those workers meant roughly $100,000 in savings per election.
The busiest of years can bring as many as six elections, so savings would add up fast.
The move was allowed by a state law that went into effect Jan. 1.
Phipps had requested that Legislative Bill 449 include language increasing the size of election precincts, said State Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha, the bill's co-sponsor and a former Douglas County election commissioner.
That provision allowed for a reduction in polling places. Lautenbaugh said such a move made sense given the rise of early voting, including by mail, and didn't draw much attention in the State Capitol.
“On the floor there was no dissension on that provision,” Lautenbaugh said. “I don't remember any real discussion. It was clear why we were doing it.”
The measure passed 47-0.
But when Phipps announced his plan to cut polling places, there was an immediate outcry. Omaha community leaders said the cuts unfairly affected poor, elderly and minority voters and asked Phipps to reconsider the move.
That's when unbudgeted expenses started to accumulate.
To address concerns that voters would be unable to reach polling places, Phipps' office mailed every registered voter an early voting application in April. The cost: about $80,000.
The mailing attracted 30,000 requests for early ballots — three times as many as expected. Sending out those ballots resulted in another unforeseen expense of $20,000.
More ballots meant more work and thus overtime. In the weeks leading up to the May 15 primary, Phipps' office ran up $15,000 in overtime costs. The entire process cost taxpayers about $115,000 more than expected.
After the election, Phipps and staff members held a number of meetings to re-examine the precinct boundaries. Two employees spent weeks working on new boundaries.
As a result, Phipps has proposed reopening 27 polling places, which would increase the total to 207. That change was announced June 13.
“It was a major mistake, a major bungling, and he's acknowledged that and apologized for it,” said County Board member Mike Boyle, also a former county election commissioner. “The remedy was awfully expensive.”
Phipps had to ask the County Board for additional funding to get through the 2011 budget year. All told, he needed an extra $70,000 to meet his budget.
The increase can't be wholly attributed to redrawing precincts. Two unbudgeted special elections this year cost $57,000.
Requests for budget supplements aren't uncommon. Typically, two or three departments ask for extra money each year.
But to have one department do it twice in the same year?
“It is unusual,” Boyle said. “Elected officials don't like to have that hanging around their neck.”
Phipps, who is paid about $78,000, is quick to admit he made a costly mistake. But now that a final plan is ready to go, he likes to focus on how much will be saved long-term.
In general, the county will save about $80,000 in each future election. In two city elections over the next year, savings could total $160,000.
Phipps plans to double the number of poll workers for the November presidential election, so in that case there won't be any savings.
The Election Commission's budget for 2012-13 is $2.11 million. That's down about $70,000 from the last general election year, in 2008, even after salary increases and inflation.
“We've still managed to save money,” Phipps said. “We're not going to save as much as we were, but we're still going to save a pretty big chunk and help the voters in the process.”
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