Library ballot: A million-dollar mistake

– The partially-successful all-mail ballot to fund the county
library system cost more than $1 million less than the county
registrar’s original projection.
Gilroy – The partially-successful all-mail ballot to fund the county library system cost more than $1 million less than the county registrar’s original projection.

Initially forecast to cost $1.8 million, the ballot came in at less than $700,000, a 61 percent savings. And while the cost of the election became a campaign issue, library officials and supporters said Friday they don’t think a more accurate projection would have meant victory for the measure that failed.

“I can’t say that it did because Measure A passed soundly,” County Librarian Melinda Cervantes said. “It was a bit of distraction. It was unfortunate that the cost of the election became an issue because the primary issue was library service.”

In a month-long mail-only ballot, 72 percent of Santa Clara County voters said yes to Measure A and agreed to raise parcel taxes by $33.66 annually for 10 years to fund the nine-member library system. Measure B, which would have levied an additional $12 tax, failed by 871 votes. Both measures needed a two-thirds majority.

There was controversy surrounding the library’s Joint Powers Authority’s decision to underwrite a special election rather than wait for a cheaper consolidated ballot in November. Cervantes said at the time that the JPA had to finance the ballot to avoid losing $5.4 million in funding for the fiscal year that begins July 1 because the current $33.66 tax expires at the end of June.

Steve Tate, a Morgan Hill city councilman, sits on the JPA and co-chaired the library campaign. He said the money the JPA saved could have been spent on mailers and other efforts to publicize the election, though the JPA can’t overtly campaign.

“Probably so,” Tate said. “We can do anything factual that educates, say ‘here’s the situation,’ we just can’t say ‘vote yes.'”

Registrar Jesse Durazo was unapologetic Friday about the miscalculation.

“I think we did our due diligence in preparing anticipated costs,” Durazo said. “This is the first empirical data we have collected. I have nothing to apologize for or be ashamed of. Like a contractor, I can’t base an estimate on whether the sun’s going to shine or not shine, or whether there’s going to be a labor strike. I base it on available current data.”

And Cervantes said she believes the registrar “did as good a job as possible. It’s unfortunate that the estimate was very high, but I don’t know how they could have predicted anything else.”

The mail-in ballot was the largest ever conducted in the county. Durazo said his office calculated the cost of the ballot using standard formulas that place the cost of an election at between $8 and $10 a voter. The registrar sent out 217,778 ballots.

“We didn’t have any empirical data to compare what a mail election would cost based on prior elections,” he said. “The standardized fixed formula has to be revisited.”

Labor and postage are the major expenses in a mail ballot. The registrar pre-pays return postage for the ballots, but is credited for the ballots that are not returned. That saved the office more than $60,000, but Durazo said the bulk of the savings came from his office’s improved facility with mail ballots thanks to the large number of absentee ballots received in the 2004 presidential election.

“We just have become much more efficient and that has a big impact on labor costs,” Durazo said.

Durazo also said he is working on cutting mail ballot costs further. Currently, ballots are sent out in several languages, but Durazo wants to save paper by asking voters to choose to receive ballots in English, Chinese, Spanish or any other preferred language.

The library system put down a 70 percent deposit on the election in March and should receive a check for more than $500,000. Cervantes said there are no plans for the windfall, which will sit in a holding account until at least October, the next time the JPA can vote on new expenditures.

Thursday, the JPA adopted its budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Libraries in Gilroy and Morgan Hill will maintain the same operating hours and will continue to be closed Sundays and Mondays. The vote did restore more than $400,000 annually to system’s books and materials budget.

“With more hours, there are more opportunities for programs, and with more books and materials, there are more resources,” Cervantes said. “We think we’ve got a lot.”

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