Government

With combined school, city elections, Iowa auditors unsure how to recoup costs

2019 will be first year for combined vote

Cedar Rapids residents vote early at the Public Service Center on Thursday, May 31, 2018. (Hannah Schroeder/The Gazette)
Cedar Rapids residents vote early at the Public Service Center on Thursday, May 31, 2018. (Hannah Schroeder/The Gazette)

County auditors in Iowa are trying to figure out how to best split the cost of combined school board and city council elections next year.

Iowa lawmakers in 2017, in an effort to boost voter participation in low-turnout school board elections, voted to combine those elections with city elections.

“We’re trying to figure out how to bill cities and schools for this combined election,” Clinton County Auditor Eric Van Lancker said. “That’s where a lot of us are trying to debate formulas back and forth and theories back and forth. We’d like to get a grasp for what this will look like.”

Counties cover the cost of general elections, which are held on even-numbered years and include countywide, state and federal races.

School board elections were previously held on odd-numbered years in September, with city elections taking place two months later in November.

Until now, county auditors billed school districts for the cost of the election, which includes poll worker fees, printing costs and other expenses, and then cities for the city elections.

Combined elections, though, complicate the billings.

In November, for example, a Palo resident will vote for Palo city council candidates and then vote for candidates for the Cedar Rapids school board.

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The question becomes: Should the city, the school district, the county or a combination of entities cover the cost of that combined election?

boost turnout

The new law takes effect July 1.

“The main purpose of merging city and school elections is to boost turnout,” Secretary of State Paul Pate said in the email this week. “It’s disappointing that only 10 percent of Iowans, or less, participate in some of these elections.

“Local elections have a large impact on our daily lives. They determine things like your children’s education, safe neighborhoods, jobs and housing. Hopefully, more Iowans will get engaged in the process on the local level.”

Kevin Hall, communications director for the Secretary of State’s office, said the law allows counties to determine how to allocate election costs, and Pate’s office will provide auditors resources for training and technical support to aid in the transition.

should counties pay?

Jones County Auditor Janine Sulzner has been part of a committee of county auditors studying the impact of combined elections, including billing.

Sulzer is advocating for a single plan that is consistent among all 99 counties.

“In my opinion, we need to come up with a uniform plan, something that can be known in advance so cities and schools can budget for the expense and counties can budget for the revenue more accurately,” she said.

She pointed to the Lisbon school district, which spans portions of Linn, Johnson, Cedar and Jones counties.

In previous years, school district voters from all four counties cast ballots at a single Linn County location. Linn County later billed the school district for election costs.

“With this combination, those voters will all be voting in their home county, so the Lisbon school district could get four different bills for election costs,” Sulzner said. “As it stands now, those all might be calculated on four totally different methods.”

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To simplify the process, Sulzner has broached the idea of having the counties cover all election costs.

“My thought behind that was, again, the taxpayers are paying for it regardless, whether it’s part of cities’ levies, school levies or county levies,” she said.

Special elections still could be billed back to the respective council or school district, Sulzer added.

different budgets

Linn County supervisors earlier this week briefly discussed the matter but didn’t seem too eager to take on the full cost of odd-numbered-year elections.

“I know it’s the same taxpayers, but it’s different budgets,” Supervisor Brent Oleson said at the meeting.

Linn County Auditor Joel Miller estimated the November 2019 general election cost about $250,000.

County officials are considering possibly splitting election costs between cities, school districts and Kirkwood Community College, which spans several counties.

“The only question remains is, what’s the split?” Miller said.

the dollars

Miller added that if school districts take on even 20 percent of the total cost, it still could be an increase in their election costs from previous years.

In November 2017, more than 17,700 people voted in the Cedar Rapids City Council election. The election cost about $61,600, or about $3.48 per vote.

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In September of that year, 3,632 people voted in the Cedar Rapids school board race, which cost about $29,000. The cost per vote in that election was nearly $8.

l Comments: (319) 398-8309; mitchell.schmidt@thegazette.com

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