County might borrow up to $24 million for voting machines, 911 upgrades

By Jennifer Learn-Andes -
Luzerne County officials are mulling the option of borrowing $20 million to $24 million to fund new voting machines and a 9-1-1 radio system upgrade. -

Luzerne County officials are set to hold their first public discussion next week about the possibility of borrowing $20 million to $24 million to fund paper-trail voting machines and a 911 radio communications system overhaul.

Although officials say both projects are unavoidable, the administration had omitted them from a pending, proposed capital plan due to a lack of funding.

According to documents from Public Financial Management (PFM) for Tuesday’s council work session agenda:

The county currently owes $291.76 million in debt, interest included, through 2029.

Borrowing to obtain $20 million for capital projects would increase the debt by an estimated $28.14 million, bringing the total owed to $319.9 million.

If the county wants $24 million, the outstanding debt would rise to a projected $326 million, or an increase of $34.2 million.

To soften the blow of new borrowing, these estimates factor in savings from the refinancing of four existing 2008 and 2009 bond notes that have “call protection” expiring in 2018 or 2019. The county had provided this protection — a period of guaranteed return to investors — to encourage them to take the risk of buying the county bonds, officials had said.

The current interest rates on these notes range from 6.75 percent to 8 percent.

Paying longer

Both new borrowing options increase future payments and extend the debt.

Under the current debt structure, the county would be out of debt in 2029 with a final payment of $11.1 million that year. Annually, the payments are $20.8 million this year, $24.9 million in 2019 and around $26.1 million between 2020 and 2028.

Here’s how the payment may change under the two scenarios, the PFM paperwork says:

• $20 million — The debt would be satisfied a year later, with a payment of $4.9 million in 2030. The 2029 payment would increase $15.9 million, and the annual payments from 2020 to 2028 would increase by around $800,000 to $900,000 — nearly $1 million in 2028. Next year’s payment, however, would decrease by $173,460.

• $24 million — This option also would stretch payments to 2030 and increase that year’s bill to $9.06 million. After a $148,352 payment reduction next year, the annual bill would increase approximately $1 million from 2020 to 2028. The 2029 payment would rise by $16.1 million.

All amounts are speculation at this point because actual rates would be determined at the time of pricing, the documents say. The county also could improve or weaken its investment-grade BBB- credit rating from Standard & Poor’s depending on how it handles budgeting and other financial matters, PFM warned.

Council would have to grant authorization to proceed by June to lock in rates a year from now and obtain the funds in September 2019, the documents said.

With the focus on whittling down inherited debt, the only new borrowing since the 2012 switch to home rule was $7.9 million for an energy savings project.

However, only $664,246 would be left in the capital projects fund if council approves county Manager C. David Pedri’s request for $1.3 million in parking lot repairs and additional courthouse restoration. The remains would be further depleted if council pursues additional security cameras and lighting and prison sidewalk repairs.

Counties must select the new voting machines, which are estimated to cost $4 million, by the end of 2019 and should try to have them in place by the November 2019 general election, the state informed counties in April.

Projected to cost $20 million, the 911 upgrade from an analog to digital emergency radio system is necessary because the radio transmitters and receivers that allow emergency responders to exchange messages will become obsolete in 2020, officials have said.

Council members also are scheduled to begin discussion on the 911 technology updates Tuesday.

Also on Tuesday’s work session agenda:

• An undisclosed settlement with former county chief public defender Al Flora to close out 2013 litigation over his termination.

• A tax break request from Missouri-based NorthPoint Development for its proposed construction of three structures totaling 1.375 million square feet on 150 acres it plans to purchase along Dundee Road in Hanover Township.

• Presentation of the mid-year financial report.

Luzerne County officials are mulling the option of borrowing $20 million to $24 million to fund new voting machines and a 9-1-1 radio system upgrade. County officials are mulling the option of borrowing $20 million to $24 million to fund new voting machines and a 9-1-1 radio system upgrade.

By Jennifer Learn-Andes


Luzerne County Council will meet at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the courthouse on River Street in Wilkes-Barre.

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.