Election Commissioner Chris Clem has written County Attorney Rheubin Taylor and County Finance Director Lee Brouner saying the county should not have cut the election office budget.
Mr. Clem, who was at one time the attorney for the Election Commission, said the county is required under state law to provide "all reasonable expenses" to the election office. He said for other offices the county is not under that requirement.
The letter says:
Rheubin and Mr. Brouner:
I was recently informed that county government significantly cut the Hamilton County Election budget without discussing these cuts with the Election Commission or with the executive director. I understand that when asked about these significant cuts that the county commented that the county budget process treats all departments the same and that the election office must take what is offered.
T.C.A. Section 2-12-109 requires that the County Election Commission be treated differently. “If a county fails to appropriate funds sufficient to pay expenses that are reasonably necessary for the discharge of the statutorily mandated duties of its county election commission, such commission may petition the chancery court of the county in which such election commission is located to compel the appropriation of such funds.”
No other county department has a statute requiring the county to pay for all “reasonably necessary” expenses. That is very low threshold for approval of what must be paid. And, no other county department has a specific statute that says if the expenses are not approved that the local Chancellor shall issue an order to “compel appropriation of such funds.”
To be blunt, the election commission is not bound by your offices refusal to pass our budget. If we decide to fund the “reasonably necessary” expenses cut from our budget then the county will not only be ordered to pay for these items but the county will also be ordered to pay the $10k to $20k in legal fees it takes to obtain the Chancery Court Order to compel payment.
As a practical matter it would have only taken an hour of the Budget Director’s staff’s time to come sit down with the Election Coordinator or with the Election Commission to discuss the budget issues and come to a compromise. We are very reasonable. We compromise. We work with people. We resolve conflicts.
Next years elections are very, very important. We take that responsibility seriously. The items cut from our budget included a position to deal with the incredibly huge increase in absentee and mail in ballots. It is critical and “reasonably necessary” that this position be funded. There are ways to resolve budget issues. Unilaterally cutting the election budget without discussing it with us and working with us is not the correct process under T.C.A. Section 2-12-109.
The Election Commission has unanimously voted on a budget which our Election Coordinator is obligated to follow – regardless of your refusal to approve our budget. It is not too late to send a staff person from the Budget Director’s office to discuss these matters with the election coordinator and/or with the election commission.
Mr. Clem also said:
The Election Commission can easily establish under the TCA Section 2-12-109 that the expenses cut from our budget were reasonably necessary.
- We saw a 600% increase in absentee ballot request in 2020. We had a temporary employee that is being paid through the county's temp service that has been filling that void but for consistency we needed to lock down someone full time for that role.
- The other major cuts to our budget were involving legal services. I requested $70,000 and it was cut down to $30,000. Every single reported case on election legal fees has required the county commission to pay 100% of all legal fees of the election commission. Remember, it was your office that refused to handle our cases. Now, we have $90,000 in legal fees for 2021 and growing. You will not find a single reported case that denies the election commission its legal fees. The county must pay the legal fees.
- We were cut $12,780 from our Office supplies line item which includes our paper ballots we order.
- We requested $20,000 for Covid supplies needed which would include cleaning supplies, masks, hand sanitizer, etc. for the polling places and that was cut down to $0.
- Overall, we were cut just over $100,000 from what was requested and the Election Commissioners approved.
- The two largest concerns were the new position requested and the legal fee cut.
- We were never notified throughout this process of any of these cuts. We only found out when the budget was passed and uploaded for final review.
- The election commission has passed the budget. We have ordered the Election Coordinator to comply with our budget as passed by the Election Commission (not as passed by the county).
- Shouldn’t the county send over a low level budget staff person to try and work out these details?
- Read carefully T.C.A. Section 2-12-109. It clearly requires that the County Election Commission be treated differently. “If a county fails to appropriate funds sufficient to pay expenses that are reasonably necessary for the discharge of the statutorily mandated duties of its county election commission, such commission may petition the chancery court of the county in which such election commission is located to compel the appropriation of such funds.”