Councilman Wants to Double Richland Elections Budget with ‘Emergency’ Funds

February 17, 2016

Ron Aiken

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Pearce: “Everyone is shaking their heads”

In a motion not submitted in time to make the printed public agenda or even have county council staff be able to confirm just an hour before the meeting, embattled Richland County Councilman Kelvin Washington submitted a motion to nearly double the $1.25 million budget of the county’s Board of Elections and Voter Registration.

The motion, which came at the end of Tuesday night’s meeting, was sent immediately to the county’s Administration and Finance Committee for consideration, read as follows:

“Motion to Approve emergency budget amendment in the amount of $1,207,274 (minus any reimbursements) for the Board of Voter Registration & Elections Department for the purpose of funding the November 3, 2015 City of Columbia Election, Town of Blythewood and Town of Irmo; 2016 Republican Presidential Preference Primary, Democratic Presidential Preference Primary, June Primary and Runoff.”

The reasons for the additional $1.2 million, according to Washington’s motion, were for the following listed items:

“• Purchasing Mother Board Batteries, Repairing of Voting Equipment,

• Purchasing Phones for Call Center

• Purchasing 4 Printers

• Approve Election Machine Technician I Position (Only)

  • Legal Fees.”

Washington pleaded guilty last week to failure to file income taxes for three years and was removed from the CMRTA council on which he served as vice chairman and was set to assume the chairmanship with the resignation of disgraced former Columbia City Councilman Brian DeQuincey Newman. Both men’s failure to file taxes were discovered by the Department of Revenue during its ongoing investigation into the Richland County Penny Tax.

MORE MONEY … FOR WHAT?

What the nature of the “emergency” is nine months away from the presidential elections is unclear even to the chairman of the committee it will be taken up by.

“That motion caught everybody by surprise,” said Richalnd County Council vice chairman Greg Pearce, who chairs the Administration and Finance Committee. “It came at the end of a very long meeting, after a long executive session where everyone just wants to go home, and everyone is just shaking their heads wondering what that was all about.

“What’s the emergency? And how in the world do those expenses equal a million dollars? I guess we’ll find out in committee.”

The issue will be taken up by the Administration and Finance committee next Tuesday.

Pearce also said what was unusual about the motion is that it came from a council member in the first place.

“I’ve been on council since 1999 and usually the process is the election director, in our case Sam Selph, goes to the county administrator with his budget requests or needs the county administrator brings it to council,” Pearce said. “It’s very unusual for the election commission to put up a motion through a council member.”

A MATTER OF CONTROL

In 2011, control of the then-separate Board of Registration and Election Commission were combined into one entity in a unanimous vote by the bipartisan Richland County legislative delegation.

“The delegation at that time did not like the salary structure down there, so they asked us to restructure it and we have to do what they tell us to do because they could put a proviso on our local government fund money saying you have to spend it on this,” Pearce said. “We usually provide what they ask us for.”

In 2011, the last year of the separate offices, the combined budget of both offices was $778,088, a review of the county’s archived budgets by The Nerve shows. In 2012, with a mandate to provide more funding for salaries (and the installation of then-director Lillian McBride over former director Mike Cinnamon, who had run elections in the county for four decades), an additional $394,623 was directed to the newly combined group. That funding has continued every year since.

For councilmember Seth Rose, that additional money makes the request for another $1.2 million even harder to swallow.

“The legislature through a 2011 law has forced the county to fund the Richland County election commission at a $400,000 annual increase in the elections office budget,” Rose told The Nerve Wednesday morning. “Obviously an elections office is critical to a democracy and I want their needs met. However, for the life of me I do not understand why the election office cannot cover their bills with this massive annual increase from the legislature.

“Someone needs to explain to me why a call center is necessary in an elections office.”

Or unspecified legal fees, for that matter.

“Legal fees, some printers, I just don’t see how that’s not in a budget already and constitutes an emergency,” Pearce said. “I can’t wait to find out the answers to that in March.”

Reach Aiken at (803) 254-4411. Email him at ron@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RonAiken and @TheNerveSC.