Luzerne County government still has no concrete plan to pay for two looming capital projects — new paper-trail voting machines estimated to cost $4 million and a 911 radio communications system overhaul projected at $20 million.
Although county officials say both projects are unavoidable, the administration omitted them from a proposed capital plan that council started discussing Tuesday due to the lack of funding.
Instead, the administration plans to incorporate a proposed funding plan for both projects in 2019 budget discussions this fall, said county Manager C. David Pedri and Administrative Services Division Head David Parsnik.
Little, if any, state or federal funding is expected for these projects.
“We did everything we could to try to find grants or other assistance,” Pedri said. “This is a $24 million investment that must be completed for public safety and elections.”
Council Chairman Tim McGinley said the two major capital expenses come at a challenging time because the capital fund is nearly depleted.
Under the proposed capital plan, a total $1.3 million would be spent primarily on parking lot repairs and additional courthouse restoration, leaving $664,246 for future capital projects.
The county also still has nearly $5 million in reserve in this year’s budget — money that could be programmed for capital projects if it is not needed for other emergencies. Another $1.2 million windfall from an expired tax-diversion program also is pending.
The option of borrowing to fund the voting machines and 911 project has not been publicly discussed and may be a hard sell amid the effort to pay off inherited debt, with a current outstanding balance of approximately $294 million.
County Election Director Marisa Crispell said she and other local election representatives have started studying paper-trail voting machines that Pennsylvania wants in place by the 2020 primary to become familiar with their features.
Parsnik said a public request for proposals from vendors likely will be sought after funding is identified.
“That will still give us plenty of time to review proposals,” Parsnik said.
Counties must select the new machines by the end of 2019 and should try to have them in place by the November 2019 general election, the state informed counties in April.
These types of systems require a physical paper ballot that can be reviewed by voters and kept by officials as a record in case final tallies must be checked. Voters must insert the ballots into a tabulation device to cast their votes.
The two general options require voters to either fill in ovals on the ballots or make selections on a computerized ballot-marking device similar to the way they vote now, with the difference that voters would hit a button to print the ballot instead of casting it, Crispell has said.
Five companies showcased machines at a state demonstration, but only one has been certified for use by the state to date, Crispell said.
She is trying to find out if the county can obtain revenue from turning in the current electronic voting machines or save by bulk-purchasing new machines with other counties that select the same ones.
“We are looking at any options to bring the cost down,” Crispell said.
The 911 upgrade from an analog to digital emergency radio system is necessary because the radio transmitters and receivers that allow emergency responders to exchange messages will become obsolete in 2020, officials have said.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.