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updated: 10/9/2013 9:57 AM

County clerks plus election boards costs suburbs

Lake County election commission could be costly

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  • Lake County taxpayers could have to cover hundreds of thousands of dollars more a year if an election commission is formed.

      Lake County taxpayers could have to cover hundreds of thousands of dollars more a year if an election commission is formed.
    Daily Herald File Photo/March 2004

  • Willard Helander

      Willard Helander

  • Gary King

      Gary King

  • Bob Saar

      Bob Saar

 
 

Having a DuPage County election commission in addition to a county clerk's office costs 41 percent more than handling those duties in one office in Lake County.

:Even so, Illinois lawmakers and Gov. Pat Quinn are trying to force Lake County to mimic DuPage County's arrangement.

Lake County officials are suing the state to reverse legislation that strips election oversight from the county clerk's office and creates an election commission. A judge has granted a preliminary injunction that halts creation of the commission.

While Lake County taxpayers will spend $3,814,888 to operate the Lake County clerk's office this year, their DuPage County counterparts will spend a combined $5,383,703 to cover expenses in the DuPage County clerk's office and the DuPage Election Commission, according to county budget documents.

Duplicated administrative costs in DuPage County make up a large part of the cost difference, the budget comparison shows.

Leadership salaries illustrate the higher cost of operating separate agencies. The combination of DuPage County Clerk Gary King's base salary of $142,985 and DuPage Election Commission Executive Director Bob Saar's $132,903 salary is more than double Lake County Clerk Willard Helander's $119,326 salary. All of these positions include pensions as well.

"I've always joked that it takes two highly compensated men in DuPage to do what I do," Helander said. "But I've never scrutinized the budgets of the offices in DuPage."

Helander recently announced she will not seek re-election. King announced several months ago he also will not seek another term.

DuPage County officials argue that since their county has nearly 31 percent more residents than Lake County, the gap in operational costs is to be expected. But the combined budgeted 2013 expenses of the two DuPage agencies are actually 41.1 percent higher than the Lake County clerk's office, according to financial reports from each county.

"That's basically the approach we used was looking at DuPage's model," said Ryan Waller, assistant Lake County administrator. "It adds costs to taxpayers and another layer of government at a time when there have been a lot of people asking for consolidation."

Lake County finance officials have estimated that the creation of an election commission in addition to the clerk's office would cost taxpayers $600,000 to $700,000 more a year.

A report commissioned by DuPage County Chairman Dan Cronin acknowledged "overlap of administrative roles" between the election commission and other countywide administration. In the wake of that report, Saar said his office has been consolidating where possible.

He touted roughly $600,000 in savings over the next three years by "integrating" the commission's informational technology services with the county. He said more savings are likely as the commission rebids a number of contracts, another recommendation outlined in the report.

"We've saved money," Saar said. "We're trending down. We're looking at further consolidation within legal limits."

Despite not having to handle election duties, King is one of the best compensated county clerks in the state, if not the highest paid.

"I'm glad I don't have to worry about elections," King said. "I make a decent living and I work very hard."

King, in his seventh four-year term as clerk, has worked in the office since he got out of college 48 years ago, he said. He also receives a $10,000 stipend from the DuPage County Forest Preserve District for serving as clerk of that agency and another $3,000 for his role on the county liquor commission, he said.

When he first arrived in the clerk's office, election responsibilities were part of the clerk's role. That changed in DuPage County in the mid-1970s.

King's responsibilities include managing licenses and fees as well as oversight of property tax extension documents. Unlike his suburban counterparts, though, King does not provide online access to those property tax reports.

"They must have time to do stuff like that," he said. "It's all here for anyone who wants to see it."

Cronin said he was aware of the leadership salaries in both offices but stopped short of saying he planned to push for salary reductions before the next election or support merging the two agencies.

"Merging election administration into the county clerk's office doesn't necessarily mean it's going to make it any more economical," Cronin said. "We can consolidate job titles. The (clerk's salary) doesn't have to be that way going forward, though I'm not necessarily seeking a change, but it's worthy of a discussion."

Cronin also defended the bipartisanship of the election commission, noting that it created unique election oversight.

"That instills the level of confidence you need," he said. "If I thought folding the election commission into the clerk's office would be the end-all, I would do it. But I think there's a higher calling when it comes to elections."

Cronin's counterpart in Lake County, Aaron Lawlor, is leading the fight against creating the election commission there. No collar counties other than DuPage have separate election commissions.

"The fundamental issue is that Lake County is being treated differently than any other county," he said. "We're at a point where we're trying to consolidate and make government more effective and not create more at an additional cost."

Lawlor was not surprised by the increased cost of operating the two agencies in DuPage County that do the work of the clerk's office in Lake County.

"I don't know if it's a good model or not," he said, "but it's certainly not an efficient way to run government."

Helander argued that if the creation of an election commission were so necessary, every county would have adopted one by now or have urged voters to create one. The new law was written to apply only to Lake County.

"Why? It's all a mystery," she said.

In the wake of the legislation, Helander said six longtime employees have left her office.

"People don't like to be a pawn of the legislature," she said.

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Contact Jake at jgriffin@dailyherald.com or (847) 427-4602. Follow him at facebook.com/jakegriffin.dailyherald and at twitter.com/DHJakeGriffin.

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