“We’re not a typical county department. We’re granted special privileges,” Elections Chairman Doug Cody, who is also a former county commissioner, told commissioners. “According to the state statutes we have privileges to appoint people, we can dismiss people, and the county commissioners are obligated to fund a reasonable request — and our reasonable request was basically what we had the previous year.”
Regardless of that, Cody said, more than $30,000 of the board’s 2017-18 budget request — money intended for a part-time position and overtime pay associated with early voting — got “whacked” at the last minute, and he wanted to know why.
“We’re just kind of skating a little bit on thin ice there by inserting an intermediary,” Cody said.
County Manager Don Adams acknowledged that state statutes give county Boards of Elections a certain amount of independence and told commissioners the intent was never to hamper the board’s ability to do is job.
Cause for conflict
The reduced budget, he said, stemmed from a last-minute budget submission to increase the salary of one of the departments’ employees by $1,600. Typically, county departments present these types of requests over the course of the springtime budget season. The county manager then submits a recommended budget in May — this year, Adams presented the recommended budget May 15 — and commissioners vote on the final budget following a public hearing, which this year occurred June 19.
However, Adams said, the desired salary increase wasn’t brought up until days before the final vote, June 13. It wasn’t phrased as a request — instead, the Board of Elections submitted it as something within their authority to do, without approval from anyone else.
“This conversation is brand new to this county,” Adams told the elections and commissioner board members at the July 11 meeting. “This is the first time a board of elections (in Jackson County) has ever exercised the power that our attorney says you do have, and that is to give raises without the approval of this governing body.”
State law does allow boards of elections to move money around within their allocated budgets to give raises and adjust employee pay however they wish, Adams said. He didn’t dispute that the Board of Elections has the right to give whatever raise it wants if it can find the money in its budget.
However, that’s not how the system has worked in Jackson County up until now. Commissioners still have the final say on whether and how much money to allocate for various purposes, so if the system between commissioners and the elections board is going to change, Adams told commissioners, they might need to make some changes of their own in how they allocate money to the elections board.
That’s what led to the part-time position and overtime pay being taken out of the 2017-18 budget.
Currently, the part-time position is vacant, though the board anticipates filling it by September. Theoretically, the elections board could have taken from those funds or from the overtime funds to give the $1,600 raise, whether or not commissioners approved it.
“Commissioners do control the budget, so ultimately by removing the overtime line item and the vacant position, at that point you no longer have any additional funds for that $1,600,” Adams said July 11.
The comment kicked off a back-and-forth between Adams and Cody.
“The overtime (for 2016-17) had been used, all except for 13 cents,” Cody said. “It wasn’t that we were abusing overtime or anything like that … That permanent part-time position already existed. If you guys had a problem with $1,600 maybe I could see that, but you come in here and cut $37,000 out of our budget for previous things that we deemed necessary.”
Adams replied that all commissioners would need to do would be to approve the refilling of the position once the board of elections is ready to hire someone, and in a follow-up interview he said that the overtime money would be placed in a contingency fund and transferred over as needed.
“That’s not what the statute says,” Cody protested. “We put that in our budget because we knew the position would be filled. If the position isn’t filled the money goes back to the county.”
“But if those additional funds are left available, then the Board of Elections does have authority to move those funds around and give raises,” Adams replied.
“Well, that’s according to the authority that’s granted to us,” Cody said. “I don’t see what the issue is. We haven’t abused that in the past.”
The problem with referring to the past as a yardstick, Adams said, is that this is the first time the Board of Elections has tried to give a raise without commissioner approval.
Suggesting a memorandum of understanding
Tension between past and present operating procedure is what led Adams to suggest, during an earlier conversation, that the elections and commissioner boards come up with a memorandum of understanding to guide their interactions in the future.
The suggestion did not sit well.
“It takes power away from the county board of elections, which is power that is by statute granted to us,” Cody said.
“My biggest concern is that you guys might not be happy with our board or the way we’re functioning or some other impetus that calls for a memorandum of understanding, which I don’t really understand,” said Board of Elections member Kirk Stephens, later asking commissioners to “Please take that MOU off the table.”
Adams said in a follow-up interview that no MOU had yet been drafted or proposed — he’d simply suggested it as an option to guide future interactions between the commissioners and the election board.
“This MOU really got thrown out of proportion,” Adams said in a follow-up interview.
If the elections board is no longer going to ask for commissioner approval on expenditures such as salaries, he said, that brings up some questions that will need ground rules going forward. For instance, if the board of elections were to take the salary allocated for a vacant position and use it to give raises to existing employees, what would happen in the next budget year? Would the elections board expect increased funding to hire the vacant position and continue paying the higher salaries? Or would there be an understanding that the funding for the position has been used up and was no longer available?
“The MOU deals with things like this,” Adams said. “Not about who hires and fires, but it really talks about some of these other future issues.”
Commissioners actually wound up approving the $1,600 pay raise following a closed-session discussion July 17. With benefits, the total impact to the budget will be $1,900. Several of them indicated that they had never really opposed the increase — they just weren’t happy about the way it had been submitted days before the final budget was to be approved. Though this year was the first time a pay raise had been submitted without seeking approval from commissioners, it was the second year in a row that commissioners had received a last-minute salary increase submission from the Board of Elections.
“I’m in support of giving the raise for the guy, but it’s the principle, it’s the process,” said Commission Chairman Brian McMahan July 11. “For me to see it the first time that week, it puts us in a bad situation. If that had been brought to us prior and had gone through the process like everybody else, I would support it 100 percent.”
“The whole irritant of the whole thing was that it was a late thing, and all at once it was thrown in front of us, and it happened like that the year before,” agreed Commissioner Boyce Deitz. “Really it’s just the logistics and timing.”
Stephens and Elections Director Lisa Lovedahl both apologized to commissioners for the lateness of the budget submissions and promised they’d try to be more timely in the future.
However, more discussion on the issue will likely be necessary before commissioners can determine what needs to happen going forward, including whether an MOU is needed and what the MOU should say if drafted.