WATERTOWN — A kerfuffle over the race for city hall has brought up old wounds over whether the city should pay the county to conduct its mayoral and council primaries.
County officials insist the city owes $23,919 for the costs of primaries in 2013, 2015 and 2017. The city disagrees.
The debt resurfaced last week after Allison I. Crossman and Councilman Cody J. Horbacz tied for second in the June 25 mayoral primary with 597 votes. Jeffrey M. Smith had the most votes with 837.
The race is at a standstill with county Republican election commissioner Jude R. Seymour and Democratic commissioner Babette M. Hall disagreeing on how to handle the tie for second place.
In a letter last Friday to City Clerk Ann M. Saunders, the two election commissioners wrote that they disagreed about which mayoral candidates should end on the ballot for the November election.
In that letter, they also wrote they wanted to make sure City Council members knew about the nearly $24,000 bill for three previous city primaries.
City Council members are expected to pass a resolution on Monday to urge the two election commissioners to conduct a hand-count to see if the tie can be broken.
Earlier this week, County Legislator Jeremiah Maxon ruffled some feathers in a Facebook message to Councilman Horbacz about the situation.
“Cody, when are you going to pay the $25,000 you already owe the county taxpayers for your special nonpartisan elections?
“Your own magical city law you all love so much says you “SHALL” pay. So pay it. Then we can talk about who’s going to pay for a manual hand recount for your magical city primary election.”
Some council members were angered by the Facebook posting. Councilman Horbacz declined to comment, except to say the city should not be required to pay for the primaries.
City Attorney Robert J. Slye, who adamantly disagrees that the city should be billed for the primaries, responded:
“Sounds like Jeremiah has been listening to too many Beatles songs,” he said. “It’s magical mystifying.”
Mr. Slye stressed that villages and towns don’t have to pay for the primaries, so neither should the city. He believes the county is singling the city out because it’s a nonpartisan election.
“If no party, well, nope, sorry,” he said in arguing the city should not have to pay.
County officials point to a 1993 law that stipulates the county election board provides ballots, tally sheets and other expenses for primaries and the city pays their costs. At the time of that law, towns and villages also had to reimburse the county.
The city requested the state Legislature to pass the “special act” in 1993.
But County Attorney David J. Paulsen contends that city primaries cost a lot more than a village trustee or town highway primary, so the city “should absolutely be required to pay for the expenses for city elections that the Board of Elections incur.”
But the argument between the city and county dates back to 2014 when the county wanted to be reimbursed for the previous year’s primary .
Since then, emails have gone back and forth until the county sent a bill for $9,037.20 for the mayoral and council primary in 2013.
On Nov. 30, 2017, Mr. Slye sent a letter to Mr. Paulsen outlining his position that a 2005 state election law changed all of that and other municipalities no longer pay.
“I haven’t heard anything since,” he said, adding that Friday’s letter from the two commissioners was the first contact from the county in almost two years.
During the past six years, the county has sent two other invoices to the city regarding the primary expenses, $7,496.16 for the 2015 primary and $7,385.96 for 2017.
On the direction of Mr. Slye, City Comptroller James E. Mills hasn’t paid them.
As for Mr. Maxon’s Facebook’s post, Jefferson County Chairman Scott A. Gray said the county legislator was not speaking on behalf of the board or as a matter of policy.
“That’s Jeremiah’s opinion,” Mr. Gray said.
The controversy over the recent tie vote in the June 25 primary and flap over the unpaid primary bills are separate issues, Mr. Gray said.
“The two issues are not conflated,” he said.
In explaining the post, Mr. Maxon said he “was just making fun of a dumb law.”
The cost of the most recent primary already has exceeded $8,000, with a final tally expected next week. The city will most likely not pay that bill, either.
If council members go through with the resolution on Monday, it probably won’t have any impact on what Ms. Hall and Mr. Seymour do about which candidates move on to the November election.
They probably won’t change their minds on how to handle the tie, she said.
Asked about whether the state Board of Elections can resolve the matter, Ms. Hall said the state normally gets involved with issues like voting machines malfunctioning, not with a situation involving a tie.