Government

Cities, schools in Linn County will see election cost sticker shock

Combined city-school balloting cost county more than 2017 elections

Voting booths are seen at the precinct 32 polling place at Calvary Bapstist Church in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2
Voting booths are seen at the precinct 32 polling place at Calvary Bapstist Church in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. Voters decided on school board and local government elections. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — With a state law requiring for the first time that municipal and school elections be held on the same Nov. 5 date this year — but not spelling out just how those combined elections would be paid for — the city of Cedar Rapids, the Cedar Rapids Community School District and Kirkwood Community College are among those that may be billed far more than in the past.

Linn County Deputy Commissioner of Elections Rebecca Stonawski presented a breakdown of costs this week during a Board of Supervisors meeting. The costs will be billed to the cities and districts — and ultimately the public — if approved Wednesday by the supervisors.

The Nov. 5 balloting across the state was the first time school board and city elections were combined in an effort to increase voter turnout. Previously, school elections were in September.

While some turnouts in Iowa counties exceeded expectations, they did not in Linn County (14.39 percent) or the state as a whole (16.58 percent).

The total cost of the Nov. 5 election in Linn County was $299,037.

Linn County is paying $57,298 of the cost for temporary office staff, overtime for permanent staff and advertising.

The rest of the cost was divided “as if we still had two separate elections,” Stonawski said. The formula for billing them is related to the number of registered voters in their boundaries.

In a written presentation to supervisors, County Auditor Joel Miller noted that state law does not specify how to divvy up the cost. “The Auditor’s Office decided to divide 50% of costs amongst cities. 25% is divided amongst schools, and 25% is attributed to Kirkwood,” his presentation notes.

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Under the proposal, the city of Cedar Rapids would be billed $77,391, compared with $59,454 in 2017. The Cedar Rapids school district could be billed $33,064, compared with $13,366 in 2017. And Kirkwood Community College, which held elections to its board of trustees, would be billed $60,414 — almost double its $34,638 cost in 2017.

Districts like College Community that cross county lines will be billed a “disproportional cost” because they will be charged by Linn County, Johnson County and Benton County, Stonawski said.

Stonawski expects 11 different counties to send bills to Kirkwood because its district, too, spills outside of Linn.

That’s one of the reasons she would like to see the Iowa Legislature pass a measure providing a uniform approach for how counties should bill for elections.

“Right now, we’re doing the best we can to divide cost per registered voter, but it’s very difficult for us to be consistent with other counties if there’s no legislation,” she said.

Under that formula, cities in Linn County are to be billed $120,828, or $4,808 more than the $116,020 cost in 2017. Schools are to be billed $60,414 — almost double the $34,476 cost in 2017. And Kirkwood alone is to be billed another $60,414.

For Linn County at least, it proved more expensive to hold one combined election than to have two separate ones.

In 2017, the combined cost of the city and school board elections billed to cities and school districts was $185,134 — about $56,000 less.

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The Nov. 5 election also was the first one in Iowa under which the states’ voter ID law was in full effect. The county charged a technology fee to cover the cost of training and using iPads at polls to scan voter IDs.

But, separately, there were two other reasons for the additional cost, Stonawski said.

The first is that the county opened all general election precincts. Before the elections were combined, Stonawski said the county could open one voting location per school rather than opening all the locations.

“We chose to open them all as we wanted to consistently serve all voters across the county,” she said.

When voting locations change, as some did with the combined election, the county also was required to send out a notice to voters, which cost an additional fee.

Stonawski said Linn County is modeling the division of cost off Polk County. Smaller counties, like Jones County, are choosing to bill cities and school districts a base rate and then adding a percentage of the cost on top of that.

“Let’s say a school has a bond issue or a city has a big contentious mayoral race. It’s hard to know why voters are coming out ... it’s difficult to fairly bill because of that,” Stonawski said.

Under the formula, Springville would pay a fourth of what was billed to it in 2017. Prairieburg, which was billed $1,822 in 2017, is being billed a mere $103 for Nov. 5.

But Marion, Marion Independent School District, Linn-Mar Community School District, College Community School District and Mount Vernon Community Schools all will be billed more than in 2017.

Comments: (319) 368-8664; grace.king@thegazette.com

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