Monroe County election headquarter renovations OK’d ahead of 2020 primaries

On Wednesday morning at their work session, Monroe County commissioners approved about $39,000 worth of renovations to the old Johnson Hardware Building, aka Election Central, at 7th and Madison streets.

According to election supervisor Karen Wheeler, the work is supposed to take about three weeks. That should mean it will be done well before the May 5 primary election.

The noisiest part of the work—jackhammering tile—is supposed to be done over the MLK weekend, to minimize the disturbance to election staff. Martin Luther King Day falls on Jan. 20 this year—that’s the third Monday in January.

The work involves removing some interior walls and some partitions, to open up the space. It also includes replacing tile with carpet in the main voting area. Wheeler said the tile is slippery when it gets wet—which is inevitable on any rainy day, given the amount of foot traffic that goes through the area. The renovations are intended to make Election Day results processing easier.

The work is also intended to allow all early voting in 2020 to take place at a single location: Election Central.

In 2016, an additional satellite early voting center was offered a few blocks away, in the Showers Building. Not many voters took advantage of it, and that meant unnecessary costs, according to a written communication from the county’s clerk, Nicole Browne.

Browne’s Jan. 8 memo to the commissioners, which responded to questions they had about the need for the renovation, says:

In 2016, the Showers Building housed a well-staffed satellite that was under-utilized by the public. Parking was terrible. Building employees, working in and around the satellite location, stole parking spots reserved for and allotted to voters. Our overall experience was that, even when people in line were advised of the satellite location, they preferred to remain in line to vote at Election Central. This resulted in significant overhead given the number of voters who made the effort to vote in the Showers building.

In the back-and-forth between the county commissioners and Browne, commissioners had wanted to make sure the renovations would eliminate the need for a second, satellite early voting center. But they’d also floated the idea of moving all of Election Central’s activities to the Showers Building, centralizing operations there. That’s not the option being pursued.

The renovations will open up the area allotted to election officials, but will not increase the allocation of Johnson Hardware Building space to the election division. The corrections department will maintain its current space allocation—a point emphasized by county commissioners and county staff, when The Square Beacon floated the topic after the work session.

Browne’s longer-term vision is for the election division to be have the whole building allocated to it. It’s a vision that does not seem to be shared by county commissioners.

Brown’s Jan. 8 memo to the commissioners recites her perspective on some past contentious episodes that served as background to the current effort to get approval of renovations. For example:

Under the current administration, which began in 2016, issues regarding space were revisited in a meeting with the Commissioners following receipt of correspondence in which the Monroe County Clerk’s Office was unceremoniously directed to remove items from the Health Building (more specifically, the stored voted ballots that were statutorily mandated to be held until their “destroy by” dates following their corresponding elections).

Browne’s Jan. 8 memo was advanced by an oral statement she gave at the Jan. 2 meeting of the election board, on which she sits.

The renovations are being done by Weddle Bros. Building Group with Bounds Flooring and Elite Electric.

At Election Central, a storage room full of the existing election equipment will need to be emptied out soon, when some new voting equipment arrives.

At the election board’s Jan. 2 meeting, Browne gave an update on the new voting equipment that has been purchased from Hart Intercivic. She reported that delivery could be expected in early February.

The county had originally allowed for up to $1 million for the new equipment, and at one point planned to pay for it out of the annual general obligation bond. It was paid for with cash reserves. The contract with Hart, approved by commissioners at their Dec. 11 meeting, was for $735,600.

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Karen Wheeler, Monroe County’s election supervisor, in the room where the current voting equipment is stored. It will be moved once the new voting equipment arrives. (Dave Askins/Square Beacon)

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