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Salt Lake County may have to come up with $10 million or more to keep elections running smoothly beyond 2015.
Elections Director Scott Konopasek announced Tuesday that the county's voting machines may need to be swapped by then,meaning that the county would have to come up with the cash for about 3,000 replacements.
The projected tab: $10 million to $15 million.
Although the county may be able to keep the machines running past that date when the licensing agreement expires Konopasek said the county should prepare to buy new machines if the old ones begin breaking down, if vendors stop offering technical support or if federal regulations change.
Councilman Randy Horiuchi characterized it as a "very serious problem" financially and warned that the county could find itself in a budgetary bind if it doesn't start preparing for that possibility now.
"We may have enough time to get out in front of the curve, go out and find the money, go out and try to control our destiny," Horiuchi said, "as opposed to getting whipstocked like we have in the past."
The problem surfaced in a Tuesday subcommittee meeting, in which elections officials called on the County Council for guidance in how to come up with the money before the voting machines need replacing. They suggested setting aside cash each year, starting in 2012, to prepare for that cost.
"If it is ultimately going to happen," Councilman Steve DeBry said, "how can we incrementally do this rather than one lump sum?"
That question now goes before the full nine-member County Council.
The county got its current machines in 2005. The cost was $9 million, paid out of a one-time federal grant to replace the previous punch-card machines.
Officials are contemplating ways to reduce election costs elsewhere perhaps by expanding the vote-by-mail program or establishing regional voting centers but Deputy Clerk Jason Yocom said the county likely will face a "big cost" in the years to come. The county needs to get ready for it.
"We need to look for funding," he said, "wherever we can find it."
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By the numbers
$10 million • Minimum price to replace the county's voting machines.
3,000 • Approximate number of voting machines the county operates.
2015 • Date when the county may need to replace those machines.