OLYMPIA — Snohomish County may have to go to court to recoup thousands of dollars spent complying with a new law that requires more ballot drop boxes in the county.
So, too, might six other counties which, like Snohomish, sought reimbursement from the state for money they’ve expended to meet the demands of the 2017 statute.
The state has rejected their claims. In March, each county received a letter from the Office of Risk Management informing them that their “payment request was not approved by the Legislature,” according to public records obtained by The Herald.
“I don’t know at this point what course Snohomish County will take or any of the other counties will take,” said Snohomish County Auditor Carolyn Weikel. “Even though the state decided not to reimburse us for the costs, the drop box bill is still an unfunded mandate. I certainly hope we will continue to ask for reimbursement.”
Snohomish County filed its claim in December. It was the first county to do so.
Jason Cummings, the county’s chief civil deputy prosecutor, said his office is assessing the options and will be talking with the auditor and County Council on how to proceed in the near future.
But he said he first wants to find out what those other counties are contemplating and if there’s interest in responding together.
“A coordinated approach to a systemic problem is a much better way to deal with this,” he said.
Snohomish County Council Chairwoman Stephanie Wright did not return phone calls for this story.
But she is on the Board of Directors of the Washington State Association of Counties, which will be discussing the potential for legal action in meetings on Orcas Island in early May.
Elected leaders of Washington’s 39 counties are frustrated with legislators and governors for enacting laws that require county governments provide a certain service or program but not sending along enough money to carry it out.
The association is compiling a $400,000 fund to spend in 2018 and 2019 on communication, advocacy and potentially litigation related to unfunded mandates. The money is coming from a special assessment approved last fall by association leaders and will be paid out of the budgets of each county. About $350,000 has been collected so far.
In May, a committee of association members will provide directors with recommendations on how to proceed, said Eric Johnson, executive director for the organization.
Several possibilities exist with litigation, he said. The association could assist one county in its legal fight or help coordinate a lawsuit by several counties. Another option is for the association to seek legal standing to sue on behalf of all 39 counties, he said.
There is an existing law intended to prevent the state from mandating new programs or higher service levels without paying for them.
“If the Legislature isn’t going to hold themselves accountable to the statute then maybe we should ask the court to do so,” Johnson said.
But he stressed a lawsuit isn’t a certainty.
“Some members think litigation is not appropriate and some members say we should have sued two years ago,” he said, adding that no final decisions will be made at the meeting.
The largest underfunded mandate is the requirement for counties to provide a public defender or other attorney to represent individuals a court deems to be indigent. Counties spent $153 million in 2016 and got $6.2 million in reimbursement from the state, according to the association.
The 2017 law on ballot drop boxes is not anywhere near as expensive but an unfunded mandate nonetheless.
The law took effect July 23, 2017. It requires at least one drop box for every 15,000 registered voters, with a minimum of one box in each city, town, and census-designated place with a post office. For Snohomish County it means putting them in sparsely populated unincorporated communities such as Startup, Index and Silvana.
It was sponsored by former state Sen. Kirk Pearson, a Monroe Republican who resigned last fall to take a job in the federal government. Pearson said he wanted to make it easier for people to vote in rural areas. Civil rights groups, labor unions and progressive organizations also praised the idea.
Lawmakers did not provide counties with any money directly. They did set aside $100,000 in the capital budget to assist distressed counties with grants of up to $1,000 per box.
Snohomish County, which had 12 permanent boxes for the 2016 general election, must add 19 more to comply with the new law. The county purchased five and installed four boxes in time for last November’s election. It cost $35,000 for installation and another $1,500 for maintenance and staff to empty them, according to the claim it filed against the state.
In its claim, the county anticipated spending $140,000 to buy and install the rest of the boxes in 2018. It also expected to spend $109,734 for staff and maintenance costs. Snohomish County had 12 boxes before the law took effect.
Six counties — Pierce, Kitsap, Kittitas, Lewis, Cowlitz and Jefferson — filed similarly structured claims in February seeking a total of $576,152 in reimbursement.
Whatcom County filed a claim for $8,719 in April. It has been told not to expect a decision until the 2019 legislative session is over because it is being handled as a request for payment through the state budget.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald net.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.
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