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Voting machine overhaul could cost county $140,000

ELECTION QUESTIONS — Officials with the board of elections asked Jefferson County commissioners for new electronic poll books Wednesday. Commissioners asked them to see if there’s any way they can shift adjust their storage to help make space for a bank that would like to move into a first floor space in the Towers building. -- Linda Harris

STEUBENVILLE — The Jefferson County commissioners could have to shell out as much as $140,000 to bring the county’s voting machines up to snuff.

Officials with the board of elections were at this week’s meeting, which was moved to Wednesday because two commissioners had another official commitment, to report the poll books they’ve been using for the past six years had reached the end of their lives.

“They are out of warranty, have become costly to fix (and) are becoming unusable without costly repairs,” Director Bob Gale wrote. “I had brought this to your attention in the early part of 2021. We have been able to get four more elections out of them since I brought up the need to replace (them), and we will do our best to get through one more.”

But Gale, election board Chairman Brian Scarpone and board member Tom Gentile said they can’t risk going into the 2024 presidential election cycle with failing equipment.

Gale said they’ve had “major issues” with the current poll books, pointing out in the 2021 balloting as well as the small primary in May they’d used just 18 of them and 16 had failed.

“I spoke with the vendor. We had some trouble with the software, — it was just dying and the batteries won’t hold a charge – it costs around $200 to replace batteries,” he said. “We had at least 10 more units we had sent out in the field for testing, and when they get out in the field after testing, for some reason, they would break. “

“They just need replaced,” Gale added. “We don’t want to go into 2024 with them. There’s no way we can use them. We can get through 2022 – we’ll probably spend $15,000 fixing them just to get through to the November election, but going into 2024 it’s going to be a different story.”

Gale told commissioners he figures they’ll need about 85 electronic books, printers, charging carts and carrying cases, plus they’ll have to pay licensing fees. He said they’ll need to replace the existing system after the 2022 general election on Nov. 8 but before the 2023 primary so “we’ll have ample time to test them out.”

Commissioner Tony Morelli pointed out the Jefferson County Board of Elections is “highly regarded” throughout the state for its election performance.

“According to the president of the board of elections, we had 100 percent election integrity the last time. That’s got to be one of the best in the state,” Commissioner Tom Graham added. “Our elections are safe, secure and we’re confident they’re done correctly, and we’ll continue to make sure of that by getting them updated machines.”

Morelli said the average life span of election machines is about six years.

“Things get to end-of-life,” he said.

“They’re doing the right thing by coming up well in advance,” Commissioner Dave Maple added. “I think they’re going to get it, we’re just trying to figure out if it’s coming out of this year’s money or next year’s, and if we have to bid it out or if it’s already been bid out” because the state has a list of approved vendors and both companies are on it.

The trio seemed less than enthusiastic when commissioners took advantage of the presence of the election board’s delegation at the meeting to ask them to consider whether there was any way to reconfigure their storage spaces or an alternate space that would suit their needs. Much of the first floor in the Towers is currently used for board of elections storage, but the building is rapidly filling with tenants and a bank has expressed interest in renting space on the first floor.

Commissioners purchased the building in 2013 and moved the elections offices in a year or two later. Maple and Graham were commissioners then, along with Gentile.

“We had discussions that if the opportunity ever arose to put somebody else in, would you be open to discussing it?” Maple recalled. “There was no commitment on their end, no commitment on our end. But now that there’s such a high occupancy rate and that first floor is such a lucrative spot, a lot of that first floor is just storage. (We just want to see) if they can take a look at another way to store their (records and equipment.) In their defense, storing it on other floors becomes a nightmare on election day, trying to wait on elevators to go up and down. They’ve got some good arguments why moving would not be an easy task.”

Gentile said the convenience of the first floor is wonderful, “but it’s broken up into a lot of areas.”

“If you want to look at other areas, as long as there’s enough time (before the typically high-interest presidential election) to make it workable,” he said.

In the last presidential election, they said early voting lines wound through the corridors and out into the parking lot.

“We’re just asking you guys to look at some of your storage areas you might be able to move,” Morelli stressed.

“I invite you guys down on election night,” Gentile replied. “It’s really hard for us, even broken up as we are. We have to utilize the hallway, believe it or not. We have tables set up in the hallway to triage things. But we’re open to anything, I think the board is open to anything.”

“Speaking for myself, I’m very pleased with the building, keeping the BOE is a prime priority,” Graham added. “We’re not saying anyone wants you to get out of there.”

Maple agreed, saying commissioners “would never want to see the BOE presence out of there.

“We forget, where we came from to what we have now,” he said, while remembering the old annex building. “But technology changes. Our job is saving taxpayers money. If we can get somebody else into the first floor generating revenue (we’re doing that.)”

Morelli, who wasn’t part of county government when the building was purchased, told Gentile it was “one of the best moves this board — not including me, including you — ever made.”

“And we took a lot of flak for it,” Gentile replied, pointing out what’s desperately needed now that Social Security has opened its new office on the fourth floor of the building, located at 500 Market St., is additional parking.

“It’s left us with a little bit of a concern,” he said, pointing out there needs to be ample parking to accommodate early voters. “The parking lot across the street is in

Maintenance Supervisor Patrick Boyles told the trio core samples had just been taken and they should get the answers they need by next week.

“In the beginning, we were talking about doing one lot,” Morelli said. “But now we’re going to do both of them.”

Commissioners also learned crews restoring the courthouse fire escape encountered “unforeseen deterioration,” beams deteriorated to the point they need to be reinforced. The fix is going to cost the county an extra $53,000, project architect Tim Mizer said.

“There are locations where the top of the beams are completely gone,” Mizer wrote. “In other areas, the tops of the beams are rusted enough that welding the new mesh frame angles would be difficult.”

To remedy the problem, Mizer said McKinley and Associates redesigned the work to reinforce the top of the beams and altered the new mesh frame angle system. He said they also noticed the window frames were welded to the beams and the welds needed to be removed for the new system to connect properly.

Mizer said crews removed the wall panels on the ground floor, and while they’d planned to repair the bottom of the columns, they hadn’t realized the base plates would need to be replaced. That cost isn’t expected to be substantial.

“It’s not uncommon to discover something in a project like this, things pop up,” Graham said. “I understand, I don’t have a problem with you doing it. The question is” whether to use the funds set aside for contingencies or hold onto them in case something else comes up.

In the end, commissioners opted to retain the $40,000 in the contingency fund because the project specifications didn’t include new, fire-rated doors appropriate for the project — and that, they say, has to be a high priority.

MarkWest requested permission to survey county-owned property in Cross Creek township “for a possible transaction of mutual interest,” but commissioners said the prosecutor will have to approve it first.

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