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Regional Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, November 3, 2005

Town budgets suffer as county passes on HAVA costs

By Nicole Fay Barr, Matt Cook, and Holly Grosch

For some local towns, Albany County’s timing couldn’t be worse. Just as town governments were finishing their budgets for 2006, the county executive sent out a letter, informing towns of their portion of the bill for the 2006 elections.

In most cases, it was much higher than expected.

The Help America Vote Act (HAVA), passed by the federal government in the wake of the controversial 2000 presidential elections, calls for updated election equipment nation-wide. By the 2006 election, the act says, every state must have upgraded its voting machinery and procedures.

New York’s old lever machines will be replaced by electronic or optical-scan devices.

The cost for the upgrades, in New York, is the responsibility of the counties, and, in Albany County, the bill has been passed down to the towns and cities.

Guilderland expected to pay $58,000 for elections in 2006. However, with HAVA, it will have to spend $191,000, said Supervisor Kenneth Runion.

Last month, Runion wrote a letter to County Executive Michael Breslin, asking that the county explain how it came up with such high costs.

"It didn’t seem right," Runion said. "I think the costs are out of line."

Breslin recently told Runion that the county is reviewing the election costs in its budget, Runion said. Breslin promised to get back to each municipality in Albany County with more information, Runion said.

Guilderland will have to take money out of the contingency portion of the 2006 budget to pay for the new election expenses, Runion said.

"We should have enough money to cover for it," he said.

Runion was upset the news of the extra expense came after Sept. 30, when municipalities were required to file their budgets.

"That’s one reason why the county is re-evaluating its decision process," Runion said.

He added that, had he been made aware earlier this year of the new expense, it would have been easier to find ways to fund it when drafting the budget.

Runion hopes to hear from the county soon that it has changed its mind about the high cost Guilderland is asked to pay for elections.

New Scotland and the Hilltowns

The cost increase wasn’t much better in smaller towns.

It’s a huge "shock to the system," said New Scotland Supervisor Ed Clark. In 2004, election expenses cost the town $21,000, and for next year, $61,500 has now been budgeted. The county is charging New Scotland $48,000, Clark said.

What makes the blow even harder, Clark said, is that he first got notice of the unexpected charge while the town was putting the budget together — there was now way to plan for it, he said.

All the towns are "going to war over it," Clark said.

Clark has joined the rallying efforts against the county’s decision and also wrote a letter to the county executive, he said.

While he is hopeful that the county’s policy will change under the pressure, Clark said he is doubtful that the charge will go away. But maybe, he said, the county will allow towns to pay off the charges over a number of years.

In Knox, spending for election equipment went up $5,000 in the 2006 preliminary budget. That’s an increase of 250 percent.

Westerlo Supervisor Richard Rapp said his town will have to pay over $19,000 for new voting equipment, a huge increase over previous years. He doesn’t think the county handled the situation well at all.

"The thing that gets me is that it’s poor timing," Rapp said. "All of a sudden, we get hit with this...I’m no brain surgeon, but I think you should probably let us know as soon as you can."

Also, Rapp noted, the new voting machines may not appeal to everyone, especially the elderly.

"A lot of people don’t want to vote with a computer," he said. "I know I don’t want to go near the thing if I don’t have to."

Berne Supervisor Kevin Crosier hopes the county will change its mind.

"We’re waiting to see what happens," Crosier said. "I hoping they’ll reconsider how they’ll spread the money around."

If necessary, Crosier said, Berne has enough in its contingency fund to cover the new election costs.

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