Unusual elections, mosquito season push Cass County departments over budget
Because Cass County hired a firm to help mail out ballots and because of postage, each mail-in ballot cost the county $2.20.
FARGO — The cost of holding elections this year, as well as controlling a bumper crop of mosquitoes, caused a couple of Cass County departments to overrun their budgets.
County Finance Director Mike Montplaisir, who also supervises elections, said it was a challenging year with the estimated budget for elections of $567,073 increasing by $325,000 to about $890,000.
He said in a memo that his department budgeted for only 1,000 absentee ballots for the primary and 12,000 for the general election. Instead, with many residents opting to vote by mail due to the coronavirus pandemic, county officials mailed 36,000 ballots for the primary and 41,000 for the general election.
Because Cass County hired a firm to help mail out ballots and because of postage, each mail-in ballot cost the county $2.20. Ballots were mailed out by Sept. 28, he said, but some voters had to request another ballot because they thought the first ballot was "junk mail."
Increased hours at polling sites and personal protective equipment for COVID-19 precautions also added expenses. "I think it worked well as we didn't have any reports of anyone contracting COVID at our polling sites," Montplaisir said.
Added costs included plexiglass partitions, cleaning supplies, a high-speed envelope opener, extra pay for poll workers and paying hotels and other sites for use as voting centers. An $87,150 grant from the Center for Tech and Civic Life for COVID-19 election costs reduced the overbudgeted amount to about $238,000.
As for lessons learned this year, Montplaisir told county commissioners at their meeting Monday, Dec. 21, that the voting center concept worked well. He said voters liked the convenience of going to any poll and Saturday voting, and poll workers liked not having to tell voters they were at the wrong location. There also weren't nearly as many phone calls to the county office from people asking where to vote.
With the national trend headed toward more voting by mail, he said voting centers should be considered in the future to reduce the number of polling sites to save on costs. Montplaisir also suggested cutting the number of days for early voting from two weeks to just one week plus the Monday before Election Day.
Montplaisir said one of the biggest concerns he heard was voters having to pay postage on return ballots. He also said the drop box for ballots in front of the courthouse was "very popular."
He said voters liked the new ExpressVotes equipment where they could vote on a screen and still get a printed ballot to review. Additional training for election workers would enhance the operation, he said, but it did reduce the stress of possibly running out of ballots at some locations.
County Vector Control Director Ben Prather asked commissioners for about $106,000 more in the budget because of the tough mosquito control season. Wages for seasonal workers totaled about $348,000 instead of the budgeted $295,000, and chemical costs were $284,000 instead of the budgeted $230,000.
Prather said conditions for mosquitos were "the worst I've seen in my two decades on the job," with a considerable amount of rain falling in May through September. He said his department treated about 11,000 acres of land in the county for mosquitoes, not including aerial spraying.
Many experienced staff returned this year, he said, and they received a higher rate of pay which added to costs, along with COVID-19 precautions. There was also $11,000 added to the vector control budget to complete a building expansion for more vehicle storage.
Commissioners approved both department's budget increases.