An expensive proposition: Voter ID passage could increase county’s election-related costs

Washington County faces spending more than $750,000 for new voting machines and a central counting machine in 2013.

But the county also stares at a hidden cost next year if Minnesota voters approve a proposed state constitutional amendment requiring voters show identification at the polls.

That was the message from Property Records and Taxpayer Services Director Jennifer Wagenius Tuesday during a Board of Commissioners budget workshop.

Although the majority of the department’s projected 2013 revenue, more than $5.684 million, comes from non-levy fees collected by recording documents, assessments and revenue collected at license centers, Wagenius said her office will rely more on levy revenue to replace election equipment.

She told commissioners it has become difficult for her department to find replacement parts for the county’s 13-year-old voting equipment and her department must use several central counting machines to count absentee ballots.

“We’re just looking at some equipment,” she said, adding that Secretary of State Mark Ritchie’s office will certify voting equipment that counties can purchase next year.

Money to buy the new voting equipment comes from a $264,800 federal grant, with $179,573 that must be used by March 31, 2014, and levy and county program aid of $451,700.

And Wagenius said her department plans to buy one new central counting machine that can handle ballots from the county’s 87 precincts to replace the several machines and memory cards handling the task now. She adds the new machine also cuts down on employee overtime.

But Wagenius warned commissioners the county could face unknown costs if the voter ID constitutional amendment passes in November.

“We’re unsure of the implementation requirements,” she said. “We’ll work on keeping the costs down.”

“I’m sure if that voter ID amendment passes, there will be significant expenses,” said District 3 Commissioner Gary Kriesel.

Wagenius said one possible expense for her office would be buying “poll books” to keep track of persons voting.

Other highlights of Wagenius’ presentation included:

A slight reduction in expenses due to fewer elections in 2013.

A move to electronic filing of records that cuts document turnaround from 10 to five days.

Maintaining the office’s high records compliance reporting. “We’re maintaining nearly 100 percent of compliance with that.”

Public Works Director Don Theisen said his department faces three challenges in 2013:

Maintain customer service levels and safety.

Preserve and manage infrastructure.

Deliver capital projects which meet the needs of today that we can build upon tomorrow.

“These are not new challenges. They’re never going away,” he said.

Some of the challenges Theisen cited included safety of work crews on county roads, increased use of county parks and the efficient operation of the county Government Center.

Theisen told commissioners that two county parks — Lake Elmo Park Reserve and Square Lake Park — saw heavy use over the Fourth of July holiday. He added that the Lake Elmo Park issued 1,800 parking permits July 4.

“The Square Lake Park parking lot was full before noon that day,” Theisen said.

In another budget-saving decision, Theisen said the county will have Dakota County and private companies stripe county roads next year.

“We’ll be using 100 percent contract striping,” he said. “In 2013, we’ll certainly be looking at public-private operation of road striping.”

Regarding snow removal, Theisen said the county’s highest cost is not fuel or overtime for plow drivers, but buying the salt crews spread on roads. He added that road salt costs the county $58.18 a ton.

“Salt is the most expensive cost in snow removal,” he said. “It’s probably about half the cost of it.”

And Theisen said it’s unlikely the county will go on a low-salt diet for snow removal.

“Salt is still the most cost-efficient option,” he said. “We’ll use 10,000 tons of salt in the winter.”

Reviewing his department’s capital expenses, Theisen told commissioners, “Our first priority is to improve whatever we’ve got.”

He said DPW plans to spend nearly $811,000 replacing aging equipment.

“This increase provides us with an improved replacement schedule,” he said. “Every piece of equipment is over 10 years old. We do not have spares. If a truck breaks down, we don’t have a replacement available.”

After outlining other capital and road projects, Theisen said that although DPW has more than $16.655 million in capital expenditures and almost $11.4 million in road projects, department workers are always looking for savings.

“Public Works works. We do have people looking for savings,” he said. “Our staff is always looking for ways to control costs.”