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Hillsborough voting chief asks county for $2.3M

TAMPA — Add cost overruns to the troubles that plagued Hillsborough County's election last month, a vote already marred by counting delays, equipment failures and misplaced ballots.

Departing Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson is asking the County Commission for $2.3-million to cover "unanticipated expenses'' for the election, costs he blames largely on the transition to new voting machines.

This would be a one-third increase on the $6.7-million budget Johnson submitted in the summer to cover the election and day-to-day operations for the rest of the year. Commissioners approved that budget a little over two months ago, well after the August primary when new voting equipment was first used in a countywide election.

Johnson says the unanticipated expenses included extending early voting hours — something mandated by Gov. Charlie Crist — and performing two recounts and rescanning absentee ballots due to software problems.

Johnson took over payroll and finances for his office from the Clerk of the Circuit Court earlier this year, with his office promising it wouldn't cost taxpayers any more money.

Incoming Supervisor of Elections Phyllis Busansky, who defeated Johnson in November, said she has received no explanation for the overruns.

"It's beyond my imagining what he's doing," said Busansky, a former county commissioner. "It just came in out of the blue. In my experience, I have not seen this before."

Johnson and his chief of staff could not be reached late Tuesday.

The request appears as a last-minute addition to today's Hillsborough County Commission agenda. New Commissioner Kevin Beckner, a Democrat, has flagged the item for discussion.

Johnson is a Republican and Busansky a Democrat.

"The numbers aren't adding up," Beckner said. "If his budget is ($6.7-million), that's more than a 33 percent increase."

The money would have to come from a contingency fund just as commissioners are scrambling to balance their own ledger. The agenda item says the money is needed "to cover unexpected costs associated with the 2008 election cycle related to the transitioning from touch screen to optical scan voting systems."

An itemized list includes $300,000 for the transition to a new supervisor. Busansky said she has no idea what it's for. She said she will assess her needs once she takes office.

Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark, who has a comparable budget to Johnson's, said she is not seeking additional money. She only had three early voting sites, compared to 13 in Hillsborough, and the added cost for extending hours was $25,000.

"I do not anticipating needing to go back to the board for additional money,'' Clark said.

A spokeswoman for the Department of State could not say whether other counties had extra costs similar to those Johnson cites. Her agency does not track budget requests or adjustments for Florida's elections supervisors, she said.

Secretary of State Kurt Browning expressed public alarm late last year that Johnson was the last Florida supervisor to make a mandated change to paper ballots. Browning said he feared this left too little time to make sure Johnson knew how to use the equipment, fix problems and train pollworkers.

Johnson's office was cited by an elections monitoring group for having the most problems reported by voters at polling places. Problems persisted in counting results, which dragged on for days after results for the rest of Florida were tallied.

Staff writers Justin George and Will Van Sant contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

Budget highlights

$528,000 for voting machines

$339,000 for privacy booths

$577,000, overtime and benefits

$388,000 for temporary help

$300,000 for transition to new supervisor of elections

Hillsborough voting chief asks county for $2.3M 12/16/08 [Last modified: Monday, December 22, 2008 1:31pm]
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