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Seneca board sues for funds to conduct fall election

TIFFIN - The Seneca County Board of Elections has sued the county commissioners, alleging that the agency hasn't received enough funding to conduct this fall's balloting.

In a complaint filed Monday in Seneca County Common Pleas Court, the board asked that the commissioners be required to appropriate $40,000 to pay precinct workers, buy supplies, and cover other costs.

The dispute stems from the commissioners' decision to deny part of the board's funding request for 2002. The board asked for $236,602 but got $186,443 from the commissioners, down from an appropriation of $203,087 in 2001.

County Prosecutor Ken Egbert, Jr., who is representing the board of elections, said the board sued after the commissioners refused to boost the appropriation.

“At a time when the public wants to be confident about how elections are conducted, based on what happened in Florida, it's important that our local board of elections have sufficient funds and resources in order to conduct the election,” Mr. Egbert said.

According to the suit, the board needs $23,000 to pay precinct workers for the November general election, $11,000 to buy supplies, $4,000 to advertise the balloting, and $2,000 for contract services, travel, and other costs. Mr. Egbert said the board will save $10,000 by not having to conduct a special election in August.

“Without precinct workers, you don't have the people to put on the election,” the prosecutor said. “But it's not just salaries that they're short on. And the advertising is mandated by state law. You have to advertise in the newspaper public notices on campaign issues.”

The commissioners have said they cut funding for the board of elections and most other county agencies this year because of a drop in revenue.

The county cut more than $2.5 million from departments' 2002 budget requests, including nearly $175,000 from Mr. Egbert's office.

Jim Gucker, a Tiffin attorney representing the commissioners, said the commissioners believe the board of elections should live within its reduced means, just like other county departments.

“A lot of other county offices have had to have their budgets reduced and have cut back on salaries and hours and have dealt with the problem,” he said. “And then you have the board of elections, which is basically ignoring that problem and doing what they want to.”

Mr. Gucker said the board shorted itself of funding for the fall election by transferring $14,000 earmarked for precinct workers' salaries to fund raises for the board's director and deputy director. Both officials' annual pay went up from $34,256 to $35,283 this year.

“Obviously, the commissioners weren't very happy that they made transfers from one line item to another and took care of salaries before election expenses,” Mr. Gucker said.

Janet Leahy, director of the board of elections, declined comment yesterday.

Mr. Egbert said the board is following a recommendation from the Ohio Secretary of State's office that calls for election directors and deputy directors to be paid 80 percent of the county recorder's salary. That has been the board's policy since fiscal 2000, the prosecutor said.

“The last two years, the commissioners went along with the increases,” he said. “This year, they under-appropriated.”

Mr. Egbert said he is representing the board in the lawsuit because the commissioners agreed, at their own personal expense, to hire Mr. Gucker at $80 an hour to avoid a conflict of interest.

No county money will be used to pay Mr. Gucker.

The commissioners' action, taken in a resolution June 24 that anticipated the lawsuit, allowed the board to use Mr. Egbert and avoid the expense of hiring a private attorney.

“Rather than the county have to hire two attorneys, ... it's probably just as well that he represent them,” Mr. Gucker said.

The case has been assigned to Judge Michael Kelbley of Seneca County Common Pleas Court, but a visiting judge is expected to hear the suit.

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