MAHONING COUNTY Elections board request falls below 1999 level
The coroner said too much cutting could let criminals get away with murder.
YOUNGSTOWN -- The Mahoning County Board of Elections has asked for less money than it received last year and in 1999.
County commissioners began their budget hearings Wednesday with elected officeholders and department heads to discuss their 2005 funding requests.
The hearings continue today and end Feb. 3.
The county has lost roughly 30 percent of its revenue with the expiration of a half-percent sales tax at the end of last year. Voters twice rejected it at the polls.
The county will have between $34 million and $35 million to spend this year, but budget requests are at $57 million.
Commissioner Anthony Traficanti, board chairman, said the county is losing $250,000 a week without any layoffs taking place.
Commissioners have asked officeholders and department heads to use 1999 as a benchmark for comparison because that is the last year in which the county had a similar amount of funds to appropriate. The final 2005 budget must be passed by April 1.
Michael Sciortino, elections board director, told commissioners that the elections board budget in 1999 was $1.41 million, and the board has requested $1.23 million this year.
The main reason for the drop between 1999 and this year is printing costs for election ballots. "We removed about $100,000 [in printing costs a year] when we went to electronic, touch-screen voting," Sciortino said.
Thomas McCabe, deputy director, said the board's 2004 budget, which began at $1.33 million, ended up closer to $1.5 million because of added spending to handle the crush of new registrations and other costs tied to the 2004 presidential election.
Sciortino said the board has reduced its staff from 16 to 12 since 1999, cut part-time workers, and eliminated 100 precincts in 2001. Board employees also make a 10- percent co-pay on their health insurance.
He also told commissioners there is no countywide primary election planned this year, which will save money. That could change, however, if commissioners decide to put a sales tax on the primary ballot.
If that is done, Sciortino said, the board would need less than $200,000 for poll workers' salaries and other expenses.
New voting system
Sciortino brought commissioners up to date on the recent decision by the secretary of state to have Ohio's 88 counties use optical scanners of paper ballots for election results by May 2006.
The General Assembly required a voter-verified paper audit trail to comply with the Help America Vote Act, and vendors of the electronic voting system used by the county have not established such a trail for the video system.
Sciortino said he has been in touch with Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, who assured him the county would be reimbursed the nearly $2 million to $3 million it invested in its touch-screen system, which still can be used for this year's primary and general election.
He said the state will have to purchase the optical-scan system for the county to comply with the new requirement.
"It costs more to print paper ballots than using electronic voting," Sciortino said.
McCabe noted that if commissioners require a 30-percent cut in operations, the board is prepared to cut its full-time staff from 12 to 10.
Coroner Dr. David Kennedy told commissioners his incremental costs have risen since 1999 to about $80,000. Morgue fees have risen from $240 to $375. X-rays were free in 1999 thanks to an arrangement with Forum Health. X-rays now cost $20 each. Body removal went from $50 in 1999 to $120 this year.
He received $723,000 in appropriations last year, and has asked for $734,000 this year, primarily to replace two high-mileage vehicles his investigators use. His 1999 budget was $559,000.
He has three investigators, a forensic pathologist, an office manager and a secretary.
He said if he was forced to take a 30-percent cut, he would not be able to fulfill his statutory duties, and would have to lay off one investigator, which would seriously compromise crime scene investigations.
If that happens, "in my opinion, some people could get away with murder in Mahoning County," Kennedy said.
He said when his staff is compared with peer counties, including Trumbull, his staff is doing more with fewer people.
He added his staff also is among the lowest paid when compared with other county coroner operations.
"I have one investigator who has been with the office for 20 years who just makes just $26,000," Kennedy said.