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Vendor says Hillsborough elections office owes $2.1-million

TAMPA — The company that supplied Hillsborough County with new voting machines says former Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson's office owes it $2.1-million — $400,000 more than previously thought.

Premier Elections Solutions sent Johnson's office a bill for most of that about a week after the November election, company spokesman Chris Riggall said Tuesday.

As late as Dec. 19, he said, Johnson's office was trying to work out a payment plan.

"They don't have the money," Riggall said.

Last month, Johnson's chief deputy, Kathy Harris, asked Hillsborough commissioners for a $2.3-million bailout to cover what she described as unanticipated costs from the fall elections, citing such expenses as extra overtime and the need to buy more privacy booths. At no point did she mention the money owed to Premier.

Commissioners turned down the request, some expressing anger that it came little more than two months after they had approved Johnson's $6.7-million budget for this fiscal year.

Instead, commissioners sought an audit of Johnson's spending.

The audit results, released Monday, raised questions about how much Premier is still owed, saying the amount could not be determined from records supplied by Johnson's office.

It noted the commissioners gave Johnson enough money to cover the costs of the entire contract last February, including a final $1.7-million installment. An additional $400,000 is owed to cover a contract amendment, primarily for supplying more ballots for the November election.

But the auditor said it appeared money for the final installment was spent on other things, much of which could not be fully verified.

The initial contract for the new voting system called for spending about $5.8-million, an amount that grew to about $6.3-million with the purchase of additional equipment, said Riggall, the Premier spokesman. Most of that has been paid.

Johnson and Harris could not be reached late Tuesday. In an interview with Fox 13 News, Johnson called the audit findings absurd.

"I would simply say any medium-grade accountant would be able to understand, if they read the documents, exactly where every dollar went," he told the station. "That's really all I have to say. This entire situation has been made absurd. I will not be party to politicizing the elections office."

Phyllis Busansky, who defeated Johnson in the November election and took office Tuesday, spent the day introducing herself to her employees and said she hasn't confirmed the amount owed to Premier.

Both the audit findings and Premier's account of money owed undercut Harris' assertion to commissioners that the need for more money was unanticipated. The audit indicates some of the expenses Harris itemized — nearly $1.4-million — were spent last fiscal year and Johnson's office is seeking reimbursement.

As Johnson oversaw the switch to paper from touch-screen ballots in the past election, he was also facing a re-election challenge from Busansky, a former county commissioner.

A key assertion he made throughout the campaign was that he had trimmed his budget for this year by 10 percent.

"Families are being forced to re-examine their personal budgets in these tough economic times," he said in a May news release. "And the elections office should do the same."

In reality, spending outstripped the budget by a third.

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

Vendor says Hillsborough elections office owes $2.1-million 01/06/09 [Last modified: Friday, January 9, 2009 10:23am]
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