Taxpayers to cover big OT costs for Dec. 24 election filing snafu
What's worse than a lump of coal in your stocking?
Perhaps working Christmas Eve at an otherwise closed local government office, all because of a quirk in the state's election law that could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Unless the legislature intervenes, taxpayers across the state will be on the hook for the overtime or holiday pay needed to cover staffing costs to keep offices open on Dec. 24, the last day candidates can file to run in the April 9, 2013, election.
"It's an issue that could be a costly one," said state Rep. Fred Crespo, a Hoffman Estates Democrat who is vice chairman of the House's Elementary and Secondary Education Committee. He said he's received calls from school district officials about the problem they're facing.
"It's a big concern because of the cost of keeping these places open, especially places where they're already cutting costs," he said.
Crespo and other local legislators hope they can amend the calendar to relieve the problem during the legislature's upcoming veto session. However, others are concerned that it may be too late or that a rush to fix the inconvenience could create a bigger problem.
Election calendars are set by state statute and the rules changed in 2010, state election officials said. The filing period for elected positions on school boards, park districts, libraries, townships and many village boards or city councils begins 113 days before the April election and ends eight days later at 5 p.m. Municipalities like Aurora, Naperville, Schaumburg, Palatine and others where February primaries may occur have earlier filing periods and are not affected.
April elections are supposed to take place on the first Tuesday of that month, unless it conflicts with Passover. And that's what happened this year, requiring state election officials to move the election back a week. While the state's election law makes allowances for Passover, it does not do the same for Christmas Eve. It's not a state holiday, though many local governments treat it as such.
Elgin Area School District U-46 would normally be closed on Christmas Eve, but two employees will work the day now, said spokesman Patrick Mogge. A salaried administrator will handle the election-related duties while a custodian will also work as required by the district's union contract. The custodian will be paid double time and a half, Mogge said.
"We're just following the law," he said.
Other agencies are taking steps to minimize the fiscal impact.
"Our assistant superintendent volunteered to take care of it," said Terri McHugh, spokeswoman for Schaumburg Township Elementary District 54. "He's salaried, so we won't have to pay him overtime and he's doing it as a gesture not to have his staff have to spend Christmas Eve here."
Warrenville Park District Executive Director Diane Dillow and her assistant are also planning to spend Christmas Eve at the office together. Because the date is considered a holiday, they'll both take a different day off sometime in the future, she said.
"We have enough work to do that we'll put in a full day," Dillow said. "I don't expect any candidates to show up, but you never know."
Candidates frequently show up on the last day of filing to turn in their petitions so they can be the last name on a ballot, a position some believe helps their chances come election time.
The need for local government offices to stay open for election purposes also means that county election offices will have to open up, too, in case there are last-minute questions or emergencies.
Lake County Clerk Willard Helander has spoken with legislators about changing the date, but isn't hopeful. She is planning on staffing her office in case any of the 180 local taxing bodies in the county run into problems on Christmas Eve.
"It's unfortunate," Helander lamented. "While I think most people who are seeking office will have filed already, I suppose there's always room for an Ebenezer Scrooge to show up at a quarter to 5 to see who's open."
In the meantime, legislators seem unsure how to fix the problem, or even if it can or should be fixed.
The scheduling issue was first brought up in April, said Rupert Borgsmiller, director of the state's board of elections.
"Our response was that something needs to be taken up legislatively," he said.
State Sen. Terry Link, a Democrat from Waukegan, complained that Borgsmiller's agency should have been more vocal, and sooner.
"All they had to do was tell us this had the potential to be a problem," he said. "They should have been a little more awake on this. We should all be."
A bill was introduced in August that would extend the filing period an extra day in the future if Christmas Eve fell during the filing time frame. However, the author of that bill, Republican state Rep. Bob Pritchard of Hinckley, doesn't believe anything can be done to alleviate the problem this year.
"There's not enough time," he said. "And the speaker has made it clear that he has no sympathy on this issue."
Steve Brown, House Speaker Michael Madigan's spokesman, called Pritchard "ill-informed" and said Madigan would support an "alternative."
"We're looking at the best, most common-sense way," he said. "It's being addressed. (It) will be taken up."
State Sen. Pamela Althoff, a Crystal Lake Republican, said she's concerned that treating Christmas Eve as a state holiday for election purposes could result in requiring the state to pay workers holiday pay if they work on Dec. 24.
"There could be unintended consequences of pay," she said. "We need to create a uniform approach to this where we're not necessarily having to pay extra."
State Sen. Don Harmon, an Oak Park Democrat who heads the Senate's election law subcommittee, said the legislature should not act in haste.
"It's the unfortunate consequence of backwards math," he said. "If we can easily rectify it in a way that is fair to all stakeholders, then certainly we could rectify it, but not if we create more unintended consequences. Remember, we've created a conflict with one holiday to avoid conflict with another, which illustrates just how this is like the butterfly effect."
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