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Precinct consolidation considered

By AIMEE TABOR    The Hawkeye   13 April 2005

FORT MADISON ? Lee County may look at consolidating voting precincts to save money when switching to new precinct?based voting machines.

Lee County Auditor Anne Pedersen told supervisors Tuesday that she's waiting to hear from County Attorney Mike Short to see if some precincts in the county could be consolidated. The precincts eyed are those with fewer than 3,500 voters.

According to Iowa law, precincts are allowed to have a maximum of 3,500 voters. That means Fort Madison's five precincts, which have about 3,500 voters, will remain the same. Others like Keokuk, which has fewer voters, could be consolidated if it's possible. Keokuk has seven precincts and has about the same population as Fort Madison.

"The more precincts we can combine, the more property tax dollars we can save," Pedersen said after the meeting.

The county is expected to receive about $220,000 in federal and state money under the Help America Vote Act. However, the county currently has 27 precincts which includes provisions for absentee ballots. That means the county has to buy a machine that allows disabled people to vote and a counter for each precinct.

The county has been told that it would receive the same amount of money even if it has less precincts.

The county was told to budget about $10,000 for each precinct which means Lee County will have to pay $50,000 to make up the difference and to be in compliance, Pedersen said. The new machines will have to be in place for elections in 2006.

Pedersen also told the supervisors that a change in voting regulations would make it harder for counties in the state to get waivers if they don't meet handicapped accessible requirements.

"What they're going to do is discourage the use of any buildings that aren't handicapped accessible," Pedersen said.

In a March 25 letter, Iowa Secretary of State Chet Culver wrote that county officials would have to submit substantial documentation to get a waiver.

It will have to show that upgrading the site isn't feasible, using another building in the precinct wasn't possible because other sites were accessible, combining with a nearby precinct wasn't possible, and moving the polling location to a place outside the precinct wasn't possible, he wrote.

"In short, we have reached the point where the Secretary of State's office will no longer be as lenient when approving waivers as in the past," the letter stated.

Counties can apply for grant money from HAVA that will pay a portion of the repairs for making a building handicapped accessible. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has distributed money to the states to help with repairs and making buildings accessible.

"Grants will be awarded for up to $2,500 per polling site or 75 percent of the cost of the project, whichever is less," the grant application stated.

Lee County has five polling places that do not comply with current federal standards. Those include the South Lee County Courthouse, George Washington School, Richardson School, Great River Regional Waste Authority and Lincoln School, Pedersen said.

In 2004, the county received grants to upgrade five sites and make them handicapped accessible. Those sites were the Des Moines Township Community Center, Denmark Fire Station, Houghton Fire Station, city car barn in Keokuk and the Ivor Fowler Community Center in Montrose.

The Green Bay Fire Station was upgraded, but the work was done before the grant money was received. The work completed so far means the county has reduced the number of polling places that aren't compliant with today's standards.

"In the past year we went from 11 that weren't to five," Pedersen said.

Although some of the five polling places do have some American with Disability Act features, they aren't up to today's standards. South Lee County Courthouse and GRRWA do have ramps, but the landing at the top by the door isn't large enough by today's standards. Both don't have the required 5?by?5 foot landing.

The other sites don't have all the necessary ADA requirements such as off?street handicapped parking.

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