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Officials talk finances of polling site changes

story by Ryan Saylor
rsaylor@thecitywire.com

A plan that has been under consideration by the Sebastian County Election Commission continued its crawl toward possible adoption on Tuesday (Aug. 27), but not without questions about the cost by County Judge David Hudson.

The plan, proposed on July 18, would reduce the number of polling sites across the county and consolidate them with "polling centers," which would allow voters to vote at any of the centers versus voting at a designated precinct, which is how elections are currently structured across the county. Cities that were initially considered for polling centers included Fort Smith, Greenwood and Lavaca.

The Commission estimated cost savings of $17,645 should the polling centers in Fort Smith and Greenwood be open in time for the May 20, 2014, primary election and $18,550 for the Nov. 5, 2014, general election. Total, the Commission estimated savings from both elections at $36,195.

In the same meeting, the commission had also proposed opening early voting sites at off-site locations. The sites floated during the July meeting included the Ben Geren Park Tornado Shelter and the Dallas Street branch of the Fort Smith Public Library.

The proposal would have the sites open to voters who did not want to journey to either the Fort Smith or Greenwood County Courthouses in order to vote early.

The total estimated costs presented at today's meeting for the early voting at the Dallas Library for the primary election next year would total $8,207, according to the Commission's estimates, while the general election would run about $4,760 for a total between both elections of $12,967.

The costs associated with opening an additional early voting site, which would require hiring additional temporary help in the county clerk's office, caused Hudson to have concern, though he said he was not against having the sites open.

"Once again, our two top revenue sources - property taxes are relatively flat; sales taxes are, they're not increasing. I don't know exactly what will happen with the rest of the year. Those are number one and two revenue sources for the county in the budget and we have to take care of our existing county employees as best as we can, so any expansions in personnel need to be thoroughly scrutinized and that's kind of where I'm coming from."

According to Hudson, the only additional employees the county had planned to hire include 11 jailers, which would be paid for through the renewal of the county's one cent sales tax earlier this year. The jailers were necessary due to findings from the U.S. Department of Justice that the county jail was understaffed. Hudson said the county had been dealing with the DOJ since 2005, adding that the hiring of the additional jailers was one way of addressing some of the federal government's concerns with the jail.

On top of hiring additional jailers for the county's detention center in downtown Fort Smith, Hudson said any financial appropriations have to take into consideration the recruitment and training of a new election coordinator to replace current Election Coordinator Jerry Huff, who has notified Hudson of his intent to retire prior to the 2014 general election.

Huff confirmed to The City Wire that he would stay on staff as long as Hudson and the Commission needed him to train his replacement.

"I'll stay as long as they need me," he said, adding that a firm date for his retirement has not been set.

In addition to extra costs that could be incurred through setting up an additional early voting location, establishing the polling centers across Fort Smith, Greenwood and Lavaca could come with one-time costs of up to $100,000 for new electronic poll books, County Clerk Sharon Brooks said.

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All of the costs for Brooks' electronic poll books and the funds needed to establish off-site early voting come out of the county's general fund, Hudson said, adding again that he does was not against the items, but he wanted to be cautious with spending money that other departments may need.

"I'm not opposed to the Dallas early voting site. I'm not opposed to polling centers. I'm not opposed to polling books. I'm not opposed to any of that. My role is to make sure we are all working, we are all communicating with one another and that the Coordinator is effectively working with all of us."

The next step toward adopting any proposed off-site early voting centers, polling centers and/or polling books will be for the Election Commission to work with County Comptroller Kathy Lawrence and Hudson's office to develop a proposed budget for the next year. A meeting to present the proposed budget to the entire Commission has not yet been scheduled, though Election Commission Chairman Lee Webb indicated a meeting could be just a few weeks away.

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