STATE REACHES SETTLEMENT ON VOTING SYSTEMS
The Pennsylvania Department of State has announced a settlement with the Stein presidential campaign that will require replacement of existing voting systems in Pennsylvania with voter-verifiable paper trail equipment by the April 2020 presidential primary.
Following the 2016 election, the Stein presidential campaign brought litigation against the Department of State in federal court, after abandoning a recount effort in state court, claiming that Pennsylvania's system of elections did not produce an audit trail and that the use of paperless direct recording electronic machines may violate voters' federal constitutional rights. The U.S. District Court denied the Department of State's motion to dismiss the claims, and so without admitting liability and to avoid the uncertainty of further litigation, the Department entered into a private settlement agreement. The agreement requires the Commonwealth to continue with its directive to counties to replace all voting systems with new systems with voter-verifiable paper records by the 2020 primary election. As part of the settlement, the Department of State will also be assembling an informal work group to develop best practices for post-election audits, with a pilot procedure to be tested in 2021 and statewide deployment of audits in 2022.
At the same time, Gov. Wolf's administration indicated its intention to seek state funding of at least 50 percent of the cost of new systems, or approximately $75 million of an estimated $150 million statewide cost. The funding would be in addition to the federal appropriation of $14.15 million already available to the counties.
Counties prioritized election equipment and voting systems this year and will continue to do so in 2019. A chief objective under this priority is obtaining full funding for voting systems, noting that every dollar that does not come from federal or state funding will be a local property tax dollar. State, federal and county government will also need to work closely together to assure that counties have access to a full marketplace of voting equipment that is compliant with state and federal certification requirements and is available to meet timing and deployment needs.
COURT DISMISSES LAWSUIT CHALLENGING ABSENTEE BALLOT DEADLINES
A Bucks County judge has dismissed a petition arising from a state Senate election that challenged the constitutionality of Pennsylvania's absentee ballot deadlines.
Rep. Tina Davis (D-Bucks), who was challenging incumbent state Senator Tommy Tomlinson (R-Bucks) in a narrowly contested race in the 6th senatorial district in November's general election, filed the petition asking for inclusion of more than 200 absentee ballots in the final election totals on the grounds that voters had filed them according to the state's Election Code, and failure to count them interferes with the electors' right to vote. At the core of the argument was the four-day window between Pennsylvania's deadline for applying for a regular absentee ballot (the Tuesday before an election) and when the completed ballot must arrive at the county board of elections (typically the Friday before an election, with exceptions for military and overseas voters). The 200 absentee ballots in question had arrived after the deadline. However, Judge Jeffrey Finley issued an order denying the petition without comment.
The Pennsylvania ACLU has also filed a lawsuit on behalf of nine absentee ballot voters challenging the state's absentee ballot rules and asking the court to deem the deadline to receive regular absentee ballots unconstitutional, arguing that the time frames are so tight that many individuals are unable to mail their ballots back to the county in time.
SELECT COMMISSION APPROVES REPORT ON FIRE, EMS ISSUES
A statewide commission, created by former Sen. Randy Vulakovich's (R-Allegheny) SR 6 to recommend improvements to the delivery of fire and emergency management services in Pennsylvania, released its final recommendations on Nov. 28. The commission's work addresses the challenges that remain following a similar effort under SR 60 of 2003.
Tioga County commissioner Mark Hamilton represented CCAP on the 39-member commission, along with numerous fire and EMS organizations, local government organizations and legislative representatives from across the state. Over the past two years, the commission has reviewed ways to avert a crisis across Pennsylvania caused by increasing demand on services combined with limited resources. Six subcommittees focused on ensuring access to emergency services, government support, potential innovations that could be implemented, recruitment, retention and training, and updates to regulations and codes.
The 27 recommendations in the final SR 6 Commission report include efforts to expand, modernize and incentivize recruitment and retention efforts, as well as encourage the General Assembly to move as expeditiously as possible to enact a series of financial and non-financial incentives to stem the decline in emergency service volunteerism and attract new volunteers. The report further addresses needs for minimum service coverage throughout the commonwealth and for simplifying the process to regionalize, while also addressing funding-related matters such as correcting EMS reimbursements and adjusting funding streams and payment policies. Finally, the Commission offered several recommendations related to training and certification.
Although the General Assembly has concluded the 2017-2018 session, the report will serve as a starting point for discussions when the new session convenes in January.
ASSESSMENT OFFICE PUBLIC RELATIONS GUIDANCE ADOPTED
The Assessors' Association of Pennsylvania (AAP), an affiliate of CCAP, approved another assessment reform tool at its recent conference, this one designed to provide guidance to counties in communicating current and useful information about the assessment office processes and projects to various constituencies in the county.
The public relations guidance notes that a proactive program can enhance relationships with the public and other stakeholders, and aid the assessment office in providing courteous, accurate and thorough information. On a day-to-day basis, this can include information on accessing property record information, explaining how assessed values and property taxes are calculated, and describing the appeals process, in both print and electronic formats.
When a county is conducting a countywide reassessment, a comprehensive public relations strategy becomes even more critical, helping to ease the anxiety of property owners by promoting accurate information, understanding and awareness throughout the process.
The public relations guidance joins several other tools and resources developed over the past two years by the Local Government Commission's Assessment Reform Task Force to improve the fairness, transparency and efficiency of the property assessment process. Completed resources include data collection standards to promote complete and accurate collection of property characteristics, a model RFP and contracting guidelines for counties undertaking a reassessment, and a self-evaluation tool to assist counties in identifying key trends that may affect the fairness, equity and accuracy of property values.
These resources, as well as information about assessment related legislative proposals sponsored by the Commission, are available on CCAP's Assessment Reform Task Force web page.
NACO JOINS DISCUSSION TO IMPROVE RECYCLING SYSTEMS IN U.S.
On Nov. 15, America Recycles Day, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) held its first Recycling Summit to bring together representatives from all levels of government, including counties, and private industry to discuss recycling challenges and opportunities facing communities.
In 2017, China adopted stringent quality standards for imports of certain waste products and recycled materials and will not accept substandard items anymore. As a result, the market for purchasing recyclables has reduced significantly, impacting recycling efforts in Pennsylvania and across the U.S. The summit focused on four action areas to improve and develop America's approach to recycling in 2019: Education and outreach, enhancing materials management infrastructure, strengthening secondary materials, and improving measurements. EPA plans to hold follow-up meetings over the next year to further review the issues.
Fairfax County, Va. Supervisor Penny Gross, who serves as vice chair of NACo's Energy, Environment and Land Use Committee, participated in the summit and also signed a pledge on behalf of NACo to work together with the signatories "to build on the existing efforts to address the challenges facing our nation's recycling system and identify solutions that create a more resilient materials economy and protect the environment."
2019 BID LIMIT THRESHOLDS
The 2019 annual adjustments to the bid limit thresholds and telephonic quote thresholds under the County Code and Second Class County Code were published in the Nov. 24, 2018, issue of the Pennsylvania Bulletin.
Act 86 of 2011 increased bid limit thresholds and telephonic quote thresholds under the County Code to $18,500 and $10,000, respectively, with an annual adjustment for inflation thereafter; the thresholds were increased to the same levels in the Second Class County Code under Act 89 of 2011. The state Department of Labor and Industry has advised that the consumer price index percentage change for the 12-month period ending Sept. 30, 2018, is 2.3 percent and thus the bid limit thresholds and telephone quote thresholds that take effect Jan. 1, 2019 will be $20,600 and $11,100, respectively.
The full listing of adjusted threshold amounts from the Pennsylvania Bulletin is also available at https://www.pabulletin.com/secure/data/vol48/48-47/1837.html.