MAYS LANDING — A landlord’s $100,000 unpaid utility bill may force the Atlantic County Board of Elections out of its rental space on Atlantic Avenue, just as the board is set to begin its work on the 2021 election.
The county clerk will begin sending mail-in ballots to voters Sept. 18, and the board will begin picking them up from drop boxes to be processed for counting Sept. 20, said board Chair Lynn Caterson.
Atlantic City Electric has given the owner, 5218 Property LLC of Brooklyn, New York, until Sunday to pay or face shutoff of power, according to sources close to the situation.
That would mean all of the board’s sensitive and large scanning equipment, office furniture and more than 140,000 paper ballots cast in the 2020 election would have to be moved in about a day while the power is still on. The board’s offices are on the third floor, and some of the equipment is too big to bring down stairs so would need an elevator to remove.
The building owner could not be reached for comment Thursday. It is unclear whether the company faced stresses due to COVID-19 and might be eligible for some type of government relief funds.
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“Atlantic County government is working with the Board of Elections to resolve the problem,” the county administration said in a statement Thursday.
The county has asked the utility to consider leaving the power on through the end of the year so it can fulfill its responsibilities for the 2021 election while providing social distancing space for staff. The space also provides a secure site to store more than 140,000 paper ballots cast in the 2020 election.
In an email statement late Thursday, a spokesman for Atlantic City Electric said the company cannot discuss the financial or account circumstances of any customer, but that it understands the pandemic has significantly impacted South Jersey.
“We make every attempt to keep our customers connected, including helping them identify programs and funding that can help. ... We will continue to work with every customer prior to potential disconnection of service,” the utility’s statement said.
The elections board first rented the 11,800-square-foot space from September 2020 through much of the year in preparation for the state’s first mostly vote-by-mail general election in November, which was ordered by Gov. Phil Murphy to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
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It gave the staff room for social distancing and for handling the incredible number of paper vote-by-mail ballots the board received and counted.
The county has extended the lease four times, most recently through the end of the year, at a total cost of $239,610.50.
The most recent extension came at a cost of $85,585.
Previously, the board operated out of the renovated historic county jail in Mays Landing, a small stone structure where many offices were in former inmate cells. There was one meeting room, but it was nowhere near large enough for the extra staff needed in November 2020, let alone the additional space for proper social distancing.
“The Board of Elections commissioners are aware of the situation and are awaiting word from the county administration as to how the issue will be addressed,” Caterson said in an email late Thursday.
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The building has two other main tenants. There are state offices on the ground floor, and an IRS office is on the second floor.
While this year’s election, in which there will be nine days of early voting on machines and Election Day machine voting, is not expected to generate anywhere near as many paper vote-by-mail ballots, there is still a need for expanded space for social distancing as the delta variant of the coronavirus continues to spread.
The elections board is responsible for recruiting and training poll workers, receiving vote-by-mail ballots and counting them as well as counting paper provisional ballots, and more.
It’s been a challenging year for the board. First, it had to handle 142,000 paper ballots in the November 2020 general election — about 10 times the number of paper ballots it previously handled in an election.
Then, candidates challenged the results of two commissioner elections, suing and eventually winning a new election in one race and a total recount in the other. The board, along with the superintendent of elections and county clerk, was also charged earlier this year with making early voting happen for the coming general election Nov. 2.
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The superintendent of elections has had to purchase new equipment, and the elections board has had to hire and train more poll workers and find early voting sites.
At the Aug. 3 meeting, Republican Commissioner Frank Balles asked whether the county should consider buying or building space for the elections board.
“It appears that this is going to go on a long, long time, having to rent this space,” said Balles. “I think there will be special elections and recounts in our future. We have to be able to plan for it.”
Over time, Balles said, renting could easily cost more than building or buying a new facility.
“We have looked for another location. We didn’t like the space,” said county Administrator Jerry DelRosso at the time. “At some point we have to have a long-term discussion.”
REPORTER: Michelle Brunetti Post