Luzerne County OKs Borrowing for New 911 and Voting Systems

The Pennsylvania county’s council gave the go-ahead to borrow $20 million to upgrade the existing analog emergency dispatch system to digital technology, and to install a voting system with a paper trail.
by Jennifer Learn-Andes, The Times-Leader | October 9, 2019 AT 3:01 AM

(TNS) — Luzerne County Council in Pennsylvania gave the official go-ahead Monday to borrow $19.7 million for a new 911 emergency radio system and $1.4 toward new paper-trail voting machines.

With a 2.174% interest rate, the borrowing package also includes $12.1 million to close out and refinance older, higher-interest debt to save an estimated $3 million, officials said.

While the ordinance adopted by council is for $34.7 million, county Manager C. David Pedri said the actual amount borrowed will be $33.3 million, or $1.4 million less.

The county saved $1 million on the 911 system due to a new state grant, and Pedri said he reduced the voting system request by $400,000 based on the amounts submitted in vendor proposals.

The administration has redacted the voting machine totals in documents because negotiations are still underway. However, it appears the cost is around $3.5 million because the county is budgeting 40 percent, expecting the state to kick in 60 percent.

The borrowing will increase the county’s outstanding debt by $22.7 million, for a new total of $293.7 million, interest included, owed from 2020 through 2030, a chart released Monday shows.

All 10 council members in attendance voted for the borrowing, which is expected to close Nov. 26. Stephen A. Urban, the remaining council member, arrived after the vote.

Council must still select companies to supply both the 911 and voting systems.

911

Council’s vote to fund the 911 project was “momentous” because it will help public safety countywide for two decades, Pedri said after Monday’s meeting.

The system allows emergency responders to exchange messages throughout the 906-square-mile county. Switching from an analog to digital system will end radio interference, open up more radio channels and improve radio coverage that is inconsistent or nonexistent in some parts of the county, officials have said.

Kingston Fire Chief Frank Guido told council Monday he is “completely” behind the county’s conversion to digital, saying his municipality has been forced to purchase repeaters to keep the analog system operating and still has “dead spots” with no radio coverage.

Hughestown Fire Chief Jamie Merlino said his municipality is only a square mile and still has outages that would be corrected through the 911 digital system.

“I strongly support the change to digital. I just cannot stress how important this upgrade is to public safety,” Merlino said.

Hazleton Fire Chief Donald Leshko echoed their statements, saying too many departments in the county’s southern half must rely on the same radio frequency to be monitored by 911.

“I cannot ask you enough to move forward with this project. This upgrade is desperately needed,” Leshko said.

In response to questions about the cost to municipalities for new equipment, county 911 Executive Director Fred Rosencrans told council the county will provide about 90 percent of what’s currently in use. The county also plans to provide a bulk-purchase discount for municipalities to purchase additional equipment, including ones that need more due to collective bargaining agreements.

Pedri said the county is working with municipalities to help them obtain grants, and some private businesses also have reached out to the county seeking information about donating funds to buy new equipment for their local responders, he said.

Voting Machines

After personally checking out all three voting systems up for consideration at a public demonstration before Monday’s meeting, council members also heard presentations from the system vendors.

Council must choose a system by the end of the year and start using it during the April 2020 primary under a state mandate requiring paper ballots or receipts that can be checked by voters and kept in case tallies are questioned.

Pedri recommended a system from Dominion Voting systems, while one from Election Systems and Software, or ES&S, was recommended by both an employee/citizen selection committee and the county Election Board. Hart InterCivic also submitted a proposal.

During the vendor presentations, Councilwoman Linda McClosky Houck asked ES&S about controversy over its vendor-funded advisory board trips, including two involving former county election director Marisa Crispell.

An ES&S representative said the advisory board was created about a decade ago to “capture the voice of customers,” but the company ended the board this year due to negative reactions.

©2019 The Times Leader (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.