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Elections Board again urges county to OK hazard pay

The Henderson County Board of Elections is taking another crack at persuading the Board of Commissioners to authorize $16,000 worth of Covid-19-related hazard pay for elections office personnel, saying that the extra checks are no different than the $51,637 commissioners OK’d earlier for temporary poll workers.

The Board of Elections in a meeting on May 25 reviewed and endorsed a letter to county commissioners, which had notified the elections board on April 22 that they would not release the hazard pay for the six full-time employees of the elections office.
“The Commission does not support any ‘hazard pay’ compensation to one small group of County employees out of the total County staff,” County Commission Chair Bill Lapsley wrote to the elections board.
In a two-page response it authorized on May 25, the Elections Board pointed out that it had voted unanimously to forgo hazard pay for board members. Previously, the board had sought $500 each for board members, who met for dozens of hours in extra meetings to train and prepare for the elections process under public health guidelines.
The elections board said the Board of Commissioners decision seemed to reflect “a misunderstanding regarding several important points” and appealed to commissioners to reconsider their denial of the hazard pay. The elections board said it “wholeheartedly” agreed that “all elections workers were exposed to significant risks during the 2020 elections and all therefore are equally deserving of hazard pay.” That pay has already been made, the elections board pointed out, when commissioners earlier authorized $51,637 in federal CARES Act funding for poll workers for early voting and Election Day service.
The elections board also referred to a letter the state elections board’s associate general counsel, Kelly Tornow, wrote to County Attorney Russ Burrell on Dec. 17 describing the state and county elections boards’ authority to allocate hazard pay from the CARES Act.
“State Board legal counsel’s position is that a county government does not have the legal authority to prevent county boards of elections from receiving or using CARES Act funding in accordance with federal and state law,” Tornow said. “The state legislation does not require approval of the county board of commissioners prior to use by the county board of elections; rather, the General Assembly requires the State Board of Elections to allocate coronavirus-related funding to the county boards. Further, using CARES Act funding for hazard pay or overtime pay for election staff resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic is explicitly permitted.”
Tornow goes on to cite a state Court of Appeals ruling in a case from Graham County in which the state Court of Appeals upheld the Graham County Board of Elections had “the sole authority to make personnel decisions” even when the county Board of Commissioners attempted to eliminate a position.
“The county board of elections authority over the CARES Act funding is even more clear in this situation, where no county money is being appropriated and the use of the funds in no way impacts the county government’s budget,” Tornow wrote.
During its meeting last week, Elections Board Chair Charles Medd and Elections Director Karen Hebb reiterated their appreciation for the elected commissioners, whom they said had granted every appropriation needed for the unprecedented circumstances of an election cycle in a pandemic.
“In the 2020 elections … the Henderson County elections staff performed their duties with care and diligence, under exceptionally difficult circumstances,” the elections board wrote. “Our county’s elections were a model of excellence in an election cycle dominated by controversy, and our staff have met all the conditions necessary for receipt of this hazard pay.”
Medd said the elections board stands ready to meet with county commissioners if that would help resolve the issue. Lapsley and Commissioner Rebecca McCall both have said they would be willing to meet with elections board members to hear their concerns.