Auditor George Tablack said now's not the time to move on the funding proposal.
By BOB JACKSON
VINDICATOR COURTHOUSE REPORTER
YOUNGSTOWN -- The Mahoning County Board of Elections should know by mid-January whether its request for money to buy a new computerized voting system is approved.
The board voted this week to ask county commissioners to pay for the $2.9 million system, which would use touch-screen computers instead of paper ballots and pencils.
Financial woes: But commissioners say finding money to pay for the system will be difficult because the county's financial situation for 2002 is already tenuous. Revenue from sales tax and investment earnings are expected to dip significantly, and the state is projecting less local government funds to go around.
"The picture is bleak," said Auditor George Tablack.
He said the county has spent more money than it took in for each of the past three years, and will probably do the same this year. A $14.7 million carryover from 1999 has helped pick up the slack, Tablack said.
One of the county's two 0.5-percent, five-year sales taxes is up for renewal next year. If it doesn't pass, 30 percent of the county's general fund revenue will be lost, Tablack said.
Commissioner David Ludt said he can't support buying a new voting system until finances improve.
"I'm not going to stick my neck in a noose," Ludt said. "If I don't think we have the finances, I'm not going to vote for it. And right now I don't think we have the finances to do it."
Priority: But Commissioner Ed Reese said he thinks the voting system should be a priority for commissioners and vowed to find a way to come up with the money.
"I don't know if we can do it or not, but I'm going to try like heck to get it done," Reese said.
Commissioner Vicki Allen Sherlock could not be reached to comment.
Reese said commissioners could take a short-term loan to pay for the system, or possibly enter into a tax-exempt lease. He believes the system should be funded despite the dark financial forecast.
But Tablack said that's not a good idea given the county's precarious financial situation.
Ludt suggested that the county continue using its current system for at least two more years, until finances improve.
But Michael Sciortino, executive director of the election board, said that's not necessarily a good option.
On loan: The current system is on loan from an election technology company. It uses paper ballots on which voters mark their choices in pencil. To continue using it, the county would have to buy scanners to read the ballots, Sciortino said.
"If you spend $700,000 to $900,000 to buy new scanners, how many touch screens would that buy?" he said.
Sciortino said the board understands the county's plight, but has an obligation to provide voters with an election system.
He said the board has the right to place a bond issue on the ballot, without commissioners' approval, asking voters to fund the new system. That would be done only as a last resort, he said.
"I don't really want to see a bond issue for the board of elections and a county sales tax on the same ballot, but if push comes to shove and we need to do something drastic, it's an option," he said.