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Commissioner suggests outsourcing elections operations after recent ballot problems

July 07,2016 06:22

While talking to Elections Administrator Kathy Van Wolfe about her budget requests, Commissioner Kelly Snell asked Van Wolfe to find out how much it would cost for Hart InterCivic to run elections, taking over a role the county's elections office fills.



As McLennan County commissioners continued Wednesday to prepare next year’s budget, one commissioner suggested the county look to hire its elections-equipment vendor to run its elections.

During the March 1 primary election, 600 McLennan County voters were disenfranchised in the county’s first joint primary election with multiprecinct vote centers.

Commissioners are working through department requests this week as they put together the fiscal year 2017 budget.

While talking to Elections Administrator Kathy Van Wolfe about her budget requests, Commissioner Kelly Snell asked Van Wolfe to find out how much it would cost for Hart InterCivic to run elections, taking over a role the county’s elections office fills.

Not everyone agreed with Snell’s request.

“You say that, but didn’t we just get through going through a big fiasco with that vendor?” County Judge Scott Felton said. “That makes absolutely no sense.”

The county recently renewed its elections software agreement for one year with the company — which it has been with since 2005 — after several deferrals upon learning the county’s elections equipment is nearing the end of its useful life.

Blame ran rampant after the election as county leaders looked to find out how so many voters ended up with the wrong ballot. Some of that blame fell on Hart InterCivic. County leaders have said the company did not send a reminder about procedural changes that were needed to run a joint primary election using vote centers.

But Hart InterCivic officials have said the county has long been in possession of the necessary documentation to set and conduct this type of election, which has been used in Texas for nearly a decade.

County leaders and Hart InterCivic said proper testing of equipment before the election was not done, which was one of the reasons cited by Van Wolfe in the firing of her employee Karen Hall at the end of March.

Hart InterCivic officials also have said they suggested solutions after learning of the problem from the county prior to the day of the election, but those suggestions were not implemented.

Snell said it would be worth checking into how much it would cost to have the company run the election. Snell cited Van Wolfe’s request for a new employee in the 2017 budget. But before the discussion, Van Wolfe explained she had decided she no longer needs to add another position.

Van Wolfe said the county will contract with 16 other cities and school districts for the November election to hold their races. She said the county might not be able to afford Hart InterCivic. The city of Waco has used it and “it’s quite a bit more expensive,” she said.

Van Wolfe’s original 2017 budget requests included a new position for an elections tech specialist with a salary of $47,000. But she has talked to the county’s IT department and is working with her staff to adjust responsibilities, she said.

Snell asked what additional work Van Wolfe has, compared to past years, that would lead her to even consider needing a new employee.

Van Wolfe said she was looking at ways to move the elections department forward with technology. She said she plans on outsourcing some of the technology work instead of hiring a new employee.

Van Wolfe also is requesting a $6,000 pay raise for one of her employees. She said the employee has worked in her office for a decade and had 20 years of experience in office work before joining the county. She said the employee also has taken on additional responsibilities. If approved, the salary would move from $34,224 to $40,224.

Commissioners won’t make a final decision on individual raise requests or cost-of-living adjustments to salaries until later in the budget process. The county leaders have until Aug. 26 to adopt the budget for fiscal year 2017, which starts Oct. 1.

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