ELECTIONS BOARD Judge: Pay for health care

The county pays more for the board members' health insurance than for their salaries.
LISBON -- A Columbiana County judge ordered the county Monday to continue paying for health insurance for three board of elections members, as officials head for a showdown on the department's budget.
The county board of elections asked Common Pleas Judge Ashley Pike on Monday morning to block the county commissioners from cutting the health insurance. John Payne, the agency's director, said the judge granted the request Monday afternoon.
"The insurance was scheduled to expire today," he said.
The board also sent a letter to the commissioners asking for a lawyer to represent the panel in its attempt to force the county to increase funding for its 2005 budget. Board members asked for $543,000; the commissioners approved $400,000.
"There's no way this board can operate without those funds," Payne said.
Commissioners, who could take up the matter at their meeting on Wednesday, lamented the judge's decision. Commissioner Chairman Jim Hoppel said he is uncertain how the commissioners will respond.
"We're waiting for our attorney to take a look at it," he said.
Making ends meet
The commissioners sought to eliminate health coverage for elections board members amid a budget crisis caused by the expiration of a half-cent sales tax this August; it will bring in revenue through November. In addition, revenue from sales taxes has been dropping, officials said.
Commissioners hope to persuade voters to renew the levy in November, but even if they do, collections could not begin until April 2006.
As a result, commissioners cut funding available for county employee salaries by 20 percent. Commissioner Gary Williams said he and his colleagues wanted to spread the pain to part-time members of the elections and veterans boards. While veterans board members appear to have accepted the elimination of health insurance benefits, elections board members chose to fight it in court.
"We're a little disappointed they filed [the court motion]. It's a situation that needs to be looked at," Williams said. "Whatever the law tells us to do, we're certainly going to abide by it.
Hoppel said elections board members earn $9,600 a year. Their health insurance costs the county about $13,000 a year, he said. By eliminating it for board Chairman Jerry Ward and members Anthony J. Rich and Dennis Johnson -- a fourth member, Alfred Fricano, has chosen to forgo health coverage -- taxpayers could save about $39,000 a year.
Giving up the health insurance in fiscal crisis is the fair thing to do, Hoppel said.
"Last year, they met -- in official meetings -- they met 10 times," he said, in addition to the three elections and two recounts they oversaw.
Meanwhile, Payne said budget cuts threaten to shut down elections in the county. He said the board must update its voter registration list this year by sending cards -- with return postage paid -- to the 28,000 voters who did not cast ballots in last year's election.
"You're talking about a chunk of change here," he said.
Payne said elections officials also learned about a week ago that the state will require counties to switch from punch-card balloting to optical scanners by the end of the year. The county had hoped to use touch-screen voting machines, but Payne said those devices cannot create a paper trail as required by law.
Although the state will pay for the optical-scan machines, local officials must pay for the ballots, which Payne said cost about twice as much as the current method.
"We are a mandated office," he said. "You can't shut elections down."
Payne said the elections board will meet Feb. 7 to decide which company to hire to supply the voting machines for Columbiana County.

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