By JENNIFER LEARN-ANDES
Thursday, January 13, 2005 Page: 1A
WILKES-BARRE – Luzerne County officials have approved a tentative plan to shrink the number of election polling places from 316 to 189, which could save the county $200,000 per year.
Driven largely by dwindling population in some areas, the plan must still be fine tuned before it goes into effect in 2008.
The main reason for the delay is concern that voters will need time to adjust to new electronic voting machines that will be in place starting in 2006, county officials said Wednesday.
The three commissioners who sit on the county election board also want to give some municipalities time to explore the possibility of switching to at-large elections, rather than by ward, for council seats.
Ward races require polling places in every ward, preventing consolidation in some areas with declining registrations.
Commissioners support the polling place reduction because it will save money and make operations more efficient.
County election bureau Director Len Piazza estimates the county could save up to $200,000 annually on materials, staffing, rent and other overhead.
Piazza will distribute the plan to the county’s 76 municipalities for feedback.
He developed the plan using a rough standard of 1,200 registered voters per polling place. Piazza was limited somewhat by the constraint that every municipality, no matter how small, must have its own polling place.
He also can’t cross the boundaries of state legislative districts and school districts, further limiting his options.
About 40 percent, or 51 of the 127 polling places eliminated, are in the county’s four cities, Hazleton, Wilkes-Barre, Pittston and Nanticoke.
Wilkes-Barre stands to lose the most polling places: 22.
A few growing areas – such as Dallas, Wright, Butler and Sugarloaf townships – will pick up an additional polling place.
Piazza‘s consolidation plan exceeds the county’s expectations. Commissioners in their five-year financial plan had expressed hope that the bureau could reduce the number of precincts to 250.
Piazza said the number of electronic machines needed won’t be affected much by consolidation because the busier the polling place, the more machines would be placed there.
The polling place consolidation plan is available for public inspection at the election bureau on the second floor of the county’s Penn Place building on Market Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.
Piazza also plans to post it on the county’s Web site, http://www.luzernecounty.org.
The buildings where people will vote have not been identified.
The election board also agreed Wednesday to vote before the Feb. 15 deadline on whether to increase the pay for judges of election and election inspectors to convince more people to run for the seats.
Election judges receive $100, while the inspectors are paid $95 for the day.
State law allows counties to pay up to twice those amounts.
The board also plans to schedule a hearing at that same meeting on a complaint that county Clerk of Courts Bob Reilly violated state election law in the Nov. 2 election by serving as an elected machine inspector.
State law prohibits elected officials from serving as election officials. Reilly has argued through his lawyer that the county’s election handbook does not list machine inspector as an election official.
WANT TO SEE THE PLAN?
The Luzerne County precinct consolidation plan is available for public inspection at the election bureau on the second floor of the Penn Place building at Market Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. Individual polling places have yet to be identified.