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Negotiations shave cost of touch screens

Sequoia agreed to reduce some costs, and the county cut the number of voting machines.

By LISA GREENE

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 11, 2001


Sequoia agreed to reduce some costs, and the county cut the number of voting machines.

Pinellas County commissioners are expected to approve today a final contract to pay Sequoia Voting Systems $14-million for electronic voting machines after shaving $1.5-million off the company's original proposal.

But there's a catch.

If the county borrows to pay for the machines, interest could add $1.4-million to the cost -- bouncing the total back to the original price tag.

Still, county leaders say taxpayers got a good deal.

"We've worked on it as a team," said Deborah Clark, elections supervisor. "I think we all feel very comfortable with it."

Sequoia agreed to reduce the cost of some computer hardware, software and delivery of the machines. But the county saved most of the money by cutting the number of voting machines it wants from 4,200 to 3,800.

If needed, the county can buy the additional 400 machines next year for the same price it plans to now pay for each machine, $3,150.

In its bid, Sequoia estimated Pinellas would need only 3,000 machines. Clark said she will know better whether more are needed after Pinellas voters try the machines for the first time during March city elections.

"We're trying to be very conservative, and yet be ready," she said.

Commissioner Ken Welch said he plans to ask Clark today about the reduced numbers. As long as there are enough machines, he said, the deal is a "solid proposal."

"As long as the 3,800 is sufficient for our needs, that's a good way to approach it," he said. "She's the one who's going to have to implement it, and I'm sure she's done her homework."

The county also will save an additional $75,000 because Sequoia promised a discount if Hillsborough County decided to buy machines from them also. Hillsborough commissioners voted last week to buy 3,100 machines from Sequoia for $11.9-million.

Sequoia offered the discount because providing equipment to neighboring counties will save the company travel and support staff costs.

Pinellas County negotiators tried to get Sequoia to lower what it charged per machine, but the company wouldn't budge.

"We did ask about that, but we knew . . . that the unit price was probably not negotiable," Clark said. "In fairness, the counties do talk to each other," so that if Sequoia lowered its price in one county, others would expect the same treatment.

Pinellas Administrator Steve Spratt said Sequoia already made its best pitch with its proposal, which was one of five the county considered. Spratt's staff and county attorneys helped negotiate the deal.

Pinellas County could save an additional $115,000 if it decides to trade in its old punch card machines.

Commissioners haven't decided how they will pay for the new machines, 220 of which will be delivered this month. In the final hours of slashing the budget, commissioners cut the money set aside for machines to only $6.7-million. Now the county has to borrow at least $7.3-million.

If the county borrows just that, interest would cost about $720,000, said Mark Woodard, budget director. That's assuming a 5-year loan can be obtained at current 3.5 percent interest rates.

But costs would increase to $1.4-million if the county finances the entire $14-million purchase.

Woodard said that with the low interest rates, the county might come out ahead by keeping the $6.7-million in investments.

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