NYC Board of Elections Seeks $10M for Handicapped Access

A federal court-ordered review of New York City poll sites meant to ensure they are handicapped accessible has made budgeting for the Board of Elections’ needs somewhat precarious.

New York City Board of Elections Executive Director Michael Ryan last week requested that the city increase the board's preliminary budget by nearly two thirds, saying it needed some $10 million to comply with the court order. But at least one councilman has called for a closer review of the financing, and the de Blasio administration says it is determining how much the mandate will cost.

After the mayor included $88.4 million for the Board of Elections (BOE) in its preliminary budget, Ryan testified that the agency was seeking $144.8 million for fiscal year 2016. Because the agency’s annual operations fluctuate with the election cycle, Ryan said the BOE averaged its budgets for fiscal years 2012 and 2014 to predict its needs next year. It then tacked on $10 million to satisfy the federal court’s conditions, as well as roughly $2.2 million to extend warranties on electronic voting equipment.

“The board anticipates significant additional expenditures in fiscal year 2016 related to improving poll site accessibility,” Ryan said during a City Council budget hearing Thursday. “Basically our mandate is to assess these sites from a curb cut access point all the way up to the front door of the poll sites, as well as on the interior … we also then have to go along with the recommended remediation for any of these barriers.”

In 2010, the nonprofit groups Disabled In Action and United Spinal Association filed a case against the BOE, alleging it failed to provide meaningful access to its voting program and violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York gave the advocates and the city the chance to develop and propose a joint plan for relief. But after several court dates, the BOE did not offer feedback on various proposals or come up with an alternative approach, so the Department of Justice issued a remedial plan and required the city to comply with it, court document show.

The BOE appealed, and the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in a May 2014 decision that the lower court’s assessment was correct and its remedial order was proper.

Ryan said that advocates requested the BOE use Evan Perry Associates to survey poll sites, which the board did not oppose, and the court approved the request. The firm has surveyed about 200 of the 1,200 poll sites across the city, but Ryan said the BOE had not yet finalized the terms or cost of the contract.

“We have regular, weekly internal meetings to discuss, at a high level in the agency, the findings Evan Perry has,” Ryan said. “Clearly, we’re paying close attention to poll sites that might potentially need to be relocated … there is a panoply of potential remedial work that needs to be done.”

Ryan said most deficiencies uncovered so far have been minor, and that the BOE has been collaborating with the Mayor’s Office, the city departments of Education and Transportation and the New York City Housing Authority to see when needed capital projects can be spearheaded by other agencies.

“We expect this is going to be an ongoing process, but we certainly need to put a placeholder in the budget,” Ryan said.

The agency's $10 million request includes money to pay Evan Perry, to install any necessary accessibility equipment and to hire poll workers, who will act as accessibility clerks by performing duties such as opening doors for voters.

However, New York City Councilman Ben Kallos, who chairs the Committee on Governmental Operations chair, said the $12 million mentioned in Ryan’s testimony seemed like a lot of money for compliance.

“I'll be working closely with them and with our Law Department to make sure that we are minimizing the cost associated with the federal court order and trying to be as efficient as possible,” Kallos said. “We will be looking very closely to make sure that they are not over-budgeting and then coming back with a surplus because that’s millions of dollars we could be spending on social service programs and education.”

A spokesman for the mayor’s office said, “in response to a lawsuit, we are working with the Board of Elections to determine the need.”

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