After months of planning and debate, the Albany County Board of Elections has moved into its new home.
In September 2018, word came that the Department of Motor Vehicles would be moving out of a county-owned South Pearl Street building in downtown Albany, to new offices at 855 Central Avenue, setting off debate about the South End neighborhood.
Some Board of Elections officials balked at the idea of moving from Russell Road into what they called an "unsafe area of the city."
Detecting racism in that narrative, then-County Legislature Deputy Chair Wanda Willingham, a Democrat, called for Rachel Bledi to resign after the Republican Board of Elections Commissioner characterized the neighborhood as "a dangerous place."
By November, Democratic County Executive Dan McCoy was involved, saying the people of the South End deserved an apology. "I've been talking about this since I've been in the legislature when we started paying rent up on Russell Road about keeping it in house where we can save money or buying a place that will not only be efficient and more effective, but has an economic driver in the community, and most importantly, that saves the taxpayers money going forward."
McCoy called for both Bledi and her Democratic counterpart Commissioner Matt Clyne to at least apologize, if not resign.
Bledi says no one resigned: officials worked out their differences and the official announcement of the board's relocation was made two months later, at the end of December 2018. The following February, the Albany County Legislature voted 28-10 in support of relocating the BOE. Here’s Bledi. "Well, I think it's important for people to understand that I am at the end of the day a government official. I provide a valuable taxpayer service. We did have disagreements, but many of these individuals have worked closely with me on implementing many of the reforms and initiatives that we've even had to implement this year due to many of the election law changes. So they see that I'm very committed to this operation. I'm committed to the voters and taxpayers of Albany County. And at the end of the day, we have to do our duties as officials in providing the service that we're essentially paid to do."
"What it means to the taxpayers for the next four years, we save conservatively $1.5 million, by this move alone," said McCoy.
BOE's spacious new site features a training room, in-house print shop, as well as upgraded software system and equipment. Bledi led reporters on a tour of the facility. "Some of the new technology we rolled out this year includes ballot on demand printing at early voting locations. And in addition to that, we have electronic poll books, which you can see are somewhat stored over there. They're pollprint pads. And essentially what that allows us to do is voters can come in and sign a poll pad as opposed to the old books, the paper books, which has proven to be very successful because it helps prevent duplicate voting and fraud essentially, when it comes to early voting."
District 1 County Legislator Carolyn McLaughlin, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Albany in 2017, says the relocated BOE brings a positive message to neighborhood residents. "To let them know that they thought enough of us to bring an office as important as this to the South End of Albany. Do you see how convenient this is for people who are within walking distance, what this can do to encourage them to register, confirm their registration, and then vote. I see this as a real opportunity to turn over exponentially, the number of people that vote here in the South End of Albany."
Bledi admits that despite the fact DMV opened its new office one year ago, people still wander in looking to access motor vehicle services. "What we say is, you know, 'they're located up on Central Avenue, here's a map."