Big cost savings fail to materialize in Milton’s city-run elections

Milton took control of local elections from Fulton County
Voters wait in line at Milton Library in Milton on the last day of early voting in December 2022. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Voters wait in line at Milton Library in Milton on the last day of early voting in December 2022. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Before the city of Milton took over management of local elections this year, city leaders promoted the change as a way to achieve huge savings to taxpayers.

But costs exceeded rosy projections in an election with fewer voting locations and slower results than if Fulton County had remained in charge.

The idea that a city-run election would be much cheaper and more efficient didn’t become a reality in this fall’s races for three City Council positions.

“There’s something to be said for doing things yourself and getting your own results, but obviously, if it was the same amount, it would be much more effort for the same cost by doing it in-house,” Milton City Manager Steve Krokoff said. “It was a definitely a significant drain on our staff resources.”

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

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Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

The north Fulton city hasn’t compiled a full accounting of election costs, but initial estimates indicate that cost savings fell short of the hopes of a study led by local Republicans and city officials.

The study by the Milton Election Feasibility Committee, which promoted “significant savings” as the justification for Milton to run its own municipal elections, reported last year that the 2023 election would cost just $72,000.

It turned out that the city’s direct costs for the election amounted to about $115,000, Krokoff said, plus substantial work by city employees who diverted time from their regular jobs. The value of staff time dedicated to the election by Krokoff, the deputy city manager and the city clerk likely exceeded than $100,000 this year, according to rough estimates by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

By comparison, Fulton County officials previously said they would have charged Milton about $216,000, according to The Milton Herald. Fulton officials didn’t confirm that figure but said the amount aligns with what it charged similarly sized cities for elections.

“It was clear that costs had been underestimated or entirely excluded” in the feasibility study, wrote Tim Becker, who runs the Milton Coalition blog. “Not a penny was estimated for staff costs. There was no risk analysis. ... Now we are discovering that Milton’s election initiative has wasted a lot of hard-earned tax dollars.”

By running its own municipal elections, Milton was able to use paper ballots that it counted by hand, without optical scanning machines, a process that delayed vote totals until about 12:45 a.m. the night of the election. Republicans who distrust voting machines following Donald Trump’s debunked claims of fraud in the 2020 election conducted hand ballot counts in several counties this year.

Nearly 3,700 voters participated in the election, a 12% turnout of the city’s 30,300 registered voters.

Three polling places were open on Election Day, down from the eight polling places Fulton County provided in previous city elections. One early voting location was available at Milton City Hall after voters were able to cast ballots at any of the county’s 24 sites in municipal elections two years ago.

“The main advantage (of a county-run election) is that they get to use all our advance and Election Day locations,” Fulton Election Director Nadine Williams said. “The disadvantage, of course, if a city has a preference for paper versus machine, the cities do have that option.”

One other city in Fulton County, Palmetto, also manages its own municipal elections. Palmetto runs city elections because it straddles both Fulton and Coweta counties, meaning it would otherwise have to rely on two county governments to run local elections.

Palmetto City Clerk Cindy Hanson said locally run elections cost less money upfront but require much more labor from government employees. She said this year’s city elections cost about $8,000, plus staff time, compared with about $30,000 if it paid Fulton to do the job for the city of 3,500 registered voters.

“It’s a lot of work, but it’s also very expensive to have the county run it as opposed to us running it ourselves,” Hanson said.

After Milton’s elections, the two City Council members who were on the Election Feasibility Committee will no longer be in office.

Councilman Rick Mohrig lost to Phillip Cranmer, and Councilman Paul Moore didn’t seek reelection. The committee also included Mark Amick, one of 16 Republicans who voted to award Georgia’s electoral votes to Trump in December 2020 after he lost.

Besides Milton, four other cities are considering taking over management of their local elections in two years: Alpharetta, Johns Creek, Mountain Park and Roswell.

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