The Portage Public Library will serve as the official polling place for the city until at least late 2015.
Voting at the Municipal Building has been ruled out by the state's Governmental Accountability Board—which has purview over elections in Wisconsin.
The reason: the building's 40-year old elevator.
“This was a surprise to us,” said City Administrator Shawn Murphy.
While the elevator works, it does not meet size requirements and the Help America Vote Act of 2002. Bringing the elevator up to standards would cost $98,000—money the city does not have readily available.
“It is a fairly big ticket item that we were not expecting,” Murphy said.
The city plans to apply for a state grant that would cover 50 percent of the expense, but an award of the grant wouldn't happen until early 2015, Murphy said. Construction on the elevator, then, would likely take about 12 to 16 weeks—meaning the municipality building would not be up to standards until late 2015.
A known issue
While the non-compliance ruling was a surprise, the elevator's status was not—for both the city and the state.
“We submitted accessibility reports every year they asked. They knew what the measurements of the elevators were. We went over it with them on more than one occasion,” said City Clerk Marie Moe.
The state has known about the elevator for years, but routinely gave the city a pass on it. State officials have been on site and knew about the elevator issues, Moe said. That included a visit last April.
In the fall, the city received notice that it would need to fix the elevator issue or find a new polling location.
“Timing-wise it was terrible for us,” said Portage Mayor Bill Tierney. “This is going to be a big change for regular voters.”
Back and forth
City officials said they tried to work with the state to find a way to keep voting at the Municipal Building — located at 115 West Pleasant St.
“We had conversations back and forth (with the state),” said Moe — who coordinates local elections. “We did attempt to come up with some solutions.
Among the solutions pitched, according to Moe, included having an election official help persons with disabilities utilize the undersized elevator or allowing voting in the municipal building's lobby.
None appeased the state, however.
“In our conversations with the state they were empathetic, but fairly firm in their position,” said Murphy. “Our speculation is they're getting a little pressure from higher ups, as well. So, I think this was a process that was not only singling-out the city of Portage but all outstanding volumes of non-compliance in their books.”
Finding a new location
The city evaluated a number of alternative polling locations before settling on the library — located at 253 West Edgewater St.
Among the alternatives considered were the local Best Western hotel and the VFW building. But the library was chosen despite the burden it will cause operations there.
“This is going to be an inconvenience to the library. This is going to tie up the library for those scheduled elections,” Murphy said.
A resolution approving the temporary measure was approved on a 6-0 vote by the Common Council last week.