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Pasco elections chief recommends delaying building $13M elections center

DADE CITY — Pasco elections chief Brian Corley says a question has been keeping him up at night:

When money is so tight, should he keep supporting next year's construction of a $13 million building for his long-planned elections service center and the county's information technology facility?

This week, he made up his mind.

Corley told county commissioners in a letter Thursday that he wants to postpone the new facility planned for MacDonald Street and instead make do by moving thousands of voting privacy booths — now stored in cramped construction trailers — into a nearby county records storage center.

He said he thinks he can make such a setup work at least through the 2012 election season.

"As the elected Supervisor of Elections for Pasco County, I feel an obligation to demonstrate leadership with fiscal restraint during these economic times and cannot in good conscience ask the (commission) to expend millions of dollars at a time when our citizens are financially hurting," he wrote.

Corley's decision comes a few weeks after Sheriff Bob White first proposed scrapping the project and locating the facility at the now-vacant New Port Richey jail. White wants much of those construction savings to go toward hiring 28 new deputies.

But Corley, who once served as White's chief personnel officer, said in an interview he's never talked to his former boss about the jail or about his proposal to postpone the elections center project. He said he doesn't care what the county does with the New Port Richey jail or the money earmarked for the project.

"Although it's going to be logistically cumbersome to us, it's the right thing to do," he said. "I feel bad because I think I've established a good relationship with the board … They've been extremely supportive. I realize this is going to throw a monkey wrench into their plans … but I've ultimately got to report to the citizens."

At this point, his gesture is symbolic. The county would have to decide whether it wants to wait on the project — particularly on its data processing facility — and whether it could give up storage space for Corley's needs.

Assistant County Administrator Dan Johnson said that if the county had to move all the records out of that facility, officials would have to lease space, likely for at least $40,000 a year.

Both White and commissioners praised Corley's gesture, though they took away different ideas for what it might mean.

White seized on Corley's offer as a opportunity for commissioners to give him the $4 million he would need to hire new deputies.

"Now they have the ability to fund my west-side surge," he said. "Now they don't have an excuse."

White has 30 days to appeal his budget to the governor and Cabinet. "If they do the right thing," he said of commissioners, "there's no reason to appeal."

Commissioner Ted Schrader said he still has plenty of questions, including what becomes of the hundreds of thousands of dollars already spent in designing the facility.

But he said he thinks Corley's offer could accelerate a discussion in coming months about other county facilities, including the New Port Richey jail.

"We need to certainly consider Brian's proposal and applaud him for at least giving us the opportunity to think about whether we should proceed forward," he said.

Commissioner Ann Hildebrand said she wondered if the project might get more expensive if officials wait three years and construction prices go back up. But she said she thought his idea was worth considering.

"That is so Brian. He's such a great public servant," said Hildebrand, whose son was childhood friends with Corley. "I had thought, well, we know what the needs are, but the people are saying, 'Why would government want to build a new building during these trying times?' And I think that's what Brian is thinking about."

Neither commissioner saw Corley's move as creating a chance to give the sheriff more money, saying that one-time capital savings shouldn't pay for recurring personnel expenses.

Plans for a new elections service center date to 2003, before Corley was elected. It would be a place to store thousands of state-mandated privacy booths and other election equipment, house a communications database, plus have space for training.

The county's IT department had also been looking to build a data processing facility with better security and updated technology. In 2009, officials agreed to merge the two projects, with Corley's center on the first floor and the county's IT center on the second.

Corley said his decision to postpone is not an acknowledgement that the existing facility and trailers work. "Make no bones about it, there is a need," he said.

But he said he couldn't justify it in the short term.

"I have not slept well the last couple of weeks," he said. "Tonight I'm going to sleep like a baby."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Pasco elections chief recommends delaying building $13M elections center 09/23/10 [Last modified: Thursday, September 23, 2010 9:05pm]
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