Excessive Salaries, Overspending, Bad Budgeting Has Elections Office Seeking ‘Emergency’ Funds

March 7, 2016

Investigative Reports

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By RON AIKEN

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Commission already funded better than peers, unimpressed council says

Speaking to Richland County Council last Tuesday, director Sam Selph said his Office of Elections and Voter Registration needed an additional $1.19 million – about twice his yearly budget – in “emergency” funds just to meet operational expenses as an underfunded department.

What Selph did not tell council, and what a search of records obtained by The Nerve reveals, is that:

  • of his office’s $1.24 million budget for FY 2016, $1.03 million goes to salaries alone;
  • Selph has already exceeded his overtime budget with four months left in the fiscal year;
  • Selph has spent an additional $128,000 not authorized in his budget;
  • Selph over-billed the county by $90,000 for the 2015 City of Columbia elections; and
  • Selph’s request to have council redirect reimbursements intended for the county’s general fund to his office means taxpayers would be paying for the same elections twice.

Even when trying to argue how underfunded his office is compared to his peers, Selph missed the mark by a million dollars: He claimed repeatedly at the podium that Greenville County’s budget is $2 million annually; in fact it’s $1.02 million – less than Richland’s despite having 60,000 more registered voters.

Selph’s vague testimony and exorbitant funding request (sponsored by councilman Paul Livingston in the form of a budget amendment) not only confused but angered a county council already upset with an office it’s mandated by its legislative delegation to fund but has no authority to hire and fire or even be given an honest accounting of its books despite repeated requests.

With Richland County’s penny tax program already under criminal investigation and the state Department of Revenue alleging that millions of dollars have been illegally spent, the problems The Nerve has uncovered raise even more questions about spending practices in South Carolina’s third-wealthiest county in a secretive office that, frustrated council members say, will soon be the subject of an internal audit.

HOW ELECTIONS WORK

In South Carolina, county election offices conduct federal, state and local elections within their borders. Those election offices are funded out of the county’s general funds and have itemized budgets.

From those budgets, election offices run municipal, state and local elections, supplying the personnel and voting machines and paying their associated costs, such as advertising, each election cycle.

After the elections are over, the county election offices bill the towns for the cost incurred. The towns then pay those bills with help from the South Carolina Election Commission.

After getting their reimbursements from the state Election Commission, the towns then repay the counties in full, with that money going to the county general fund as revenue that supports expenditures such as, say, the election offices themselves.

“Basically, county election offices are just a pass-through for the local towns and entities holding elections and the county,” said Conway Belangia, Greenville County’s Election Supervisor for the past 24 years. “The county election offices bill the towns, the towns get funds from the state Election Commission and repay the county’s general fund.

“Annually in Greenville, we bill out about $180,000 for the elections we conduct, and that comes right back to the county,” Belangia said. “It’s not even a budget item in our elections budget because we’re a pass through. That money goes right back to the county general fund.”

APPLES TO APPLES

In Richland County, Selph’s budget is not only on par with similarly sized counties but actually exceeds that of larger counties.

Greenville County has 293,182 registered voters to Richland’s 239,178, and yet it has a smaller budget than Richland County, operating on $1.02 million for 2016 to Richland County’s $1.24 million.

Asked if he can imagine a scenario where he would have to ask his county for double his budget in emergency funds to conduct elections, Belangia struggled to come up with a scenario that didn’t involve either catastrophic equipment failure or “the wheels falling off” of the entire process. Other than that, he couldn’t.

“Our population has increased by 50 percent in the past 15 years and my budget has basically remained the same,” Belangia said. “We’ve been able to make it work.”

When asked if in his two-decade plus career he has ever had to ask for emergency funds, the answer came faster.

“No,” he said.

In Lexington County, longtime director Dean Crepes has had nearly the same budget for years – $537,518 for FY 2016 – despite a climbing population base. He says he cannot understand the problem in Richland County.

“They’ve got double my budget and only have about 35,000 more people.” Crepes said. “You can make the comparison yourself.

As for emergency budget requests, the idea is difficult for him to comprehend.

“Every year I’ve done my budget and I’ve never needed emergency anything,” Crepes said. “We even have some (money) left over, usually.”

Crepe’s monthly budget for personnel – approximately $25,000/month for four full-time and two part-time workers – is also a fraction of the $86,434 Richland County spends on full- and part-time salaries per month on its 16 authorized full-time positions (Greenville, by comparison, has seven).

Attempts to ascertain the specific salaries of staff at the Richland County Elections and Voter Registration Office were unsuccessful, since no elections office personnel are listed on the state employee salary database and multiple calls and emails made the office’s main number and other numbers all went to voicemail and were not returned.

Voicemail messages left for Selph and Deputy Director Lillian McBride also were not returned, and an email from Selph referred any questions to the counnty ombudsman’s office.

OVERSPENDING, OVERCHARGING

According to published reports, Selph billed the City of Columbia $147,481 for the November 2015 election, an amount that received media attention because it was approximately $29,000 more than Columbia had budgeted. That overage concerned Columbia city clerk Erika Moore enough to reach out to Selph and ask he use fewer non-mandatory personnel in the future to lower costs.

Sam Selph.

Sam Selph.

In his itemized request to county council asking for reimbursement for the same city election, however, Selph invoiced Richland County for $242,560 – $95,079 more than he billed the city for.

When told of the figures, neither county administrator Tony McDonald, chairman Rush or council vice chairman Greg Pearce could explain them. All told The Nerve this was the first they’d heard of the differences in totals.

“I’m just at a loss by what has been presented to us,” said Pearce, who is the chairman of the Administration and Finance Committee out of which the election office’s funding request originated.

“I would like to see those findings,” Rush said.

Selph’s office is already over budget in two areas, according to records reviewed by The Nerve. The office receives an annual allowance of $5,000 for overtime, but through February, Selph had spent $6,890.33 on overtime with four months left in the fiscal year.

Additionally, though allowed a budget of $36,689 for temporary employees under “Operating Expenses” (all of which has been spent), no funds were authorized for “Temporary Employment Agency” as itemized in the “Personnel” category and yet Selph’s office spent $128,484 on that unauthorized expense, county officials confirmed to The Nerve.

DOUBLE DIPPING

Selph’s appeal for all monies reimbursed to the county be redirected to his office, as specified in the motion made by Livingston, presents a dilemma the county never has entertained – paying for the same work twice.

Consider:

  • The elections office staffed and ran the November 2015 elections for the cities of Blythewood, Columbia and Irmo and ran the recent presidential primaries.
  • It then billed those municipalities (and the state political party in the case of the primaries) for the costs (in some cases, like the City of Columbia, billing more than was anticipated), which Selph said totaled $952,858.
  • The money those entities will get reimbursed from the state Elections Commission then gets sent back to Richland County to go into the general fund to help fund the commission itself.
  • If those reimbursements – whatever they happen to amount to – go to the election commission, they are receiving money for a job they already had been paid to do.

Selph told council he wants the $952,858 he optimistically estimates will be reimbursed (a figure that includes the higher amount for the City of Columbia elections and an estimated $702,000 from the Republican and Democratic parties for their primary) – to be redirected to his office, not the county general fund.

In essence, the county would be paying the elections office twice for the same work – once when it funded the office’s budget to perform the work to begin with, then again when the revenues the county earned from that work aren’t returned to the rightful funding agency but re-routed to the already-funded party.

“It doesn’t make sense what they are asking for,” Rush said.

Besides the $952,000 in reimbursements requested, Selph also asked council for an additional $229,426 itemized in his request along with the hiring of a “Election Machine Technician” with no specified salary range given.

The $229,000 is listed as being for the purchasing of new equipment such as phones, motherboard batteries, printers and SEC-mandated maintenance and licensing fees. This request also was questioned by council.

“It seems to me that many of those items would already be part of an actual annual budget,” councilman Bill Malinowski said. “Yet we have no further breakdown, just a lump sum for ‘payment of invoices’ for some items for $71,000.

“We have another one for ‘related equipment’ and ‘printers and repair’ for $45,000. I think before we start paying any of these bills we start to see some detailed itemized listing, some receipts for these items.”

“I’m not so sure they’re budgeting their items properly.”

“I wonder what’s truly happening.”

At the end of last week’s debate, council gave nearly unanimous consent (Seth Rose voted against) to the $1.2 million request on first reading with the condition that Selph return with more accurate projections at council’s next meeting on March 19.

The request requires two more readings and a public hearing.

For Rose, the elections office has a lot more explaining to do.

“I have no way of knowing if the money they have already is well spent,” Rose said. “Nothing has been shown to me to say that, and I have serious concerns about the numbers they’re using.

“It’s beyond frustrating.”

Reach Aiken at 803-254-4411 or email him at ron@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RonAiken and @TheNerveSC. Sign up for instant email alerts when stories break by clicking the button at the top right corner of this page.