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Dan Hust | Democrat

Stacks of tax records sit in the light – and heat – of the midday sun inside the Social Services complex’s maintenance building in Liberty, which is not air-conditioned.

County wrestling with where to put its records

By Dan Hust
SULLIVAN COUNTY — June 4, 2010 — Some of Sullivan County’s oldest files – judgments and liens dating back to 1827 – are sitting in an unheated, non-air-conditioned pole barn in Liberty.
Newer records aren’t necessarily better off, with some stored inside metal shipping containers lacking even electricity – and swarming with bees.
Others are cram-packed inside a secure room in the County Clerk’s Office, where Clerk Dan Briggs and his two staffers assigned to records retention – Henry Belser and Steve Miller – await the moment they’ll start telling county agencies to pile the boxes up in their own offices.
“We’re responsible for every department in the county,” said Belser, who’s dedicated the past 15 years to managing the county’s records. “... And we don’t have the ability to make everything electronic yet.”
More like the county doesn’t have the time, or the funding for additional personnel. The hardware and software are there, but the time it takes to scan in thousands upon thousands of documents is time Belser and Miller don’t have.
They’re too busy collecting, collating, documenting and redistributing that paperwork.
“We still have stuff coming in from the year 2000,” Belser pointed out.
Miller and Belser’s desks sit just a few feet apart inside the Government Center, yet that space is filled with file cabinets, boxes and stacks of court proceedings, deeds, mortgages, permits, memos – anything and everything the county generates and collects.
Miller types away at his keyboard, using a special program to create an electronic record of the record – not the document itself, but just a note marking its location and status in the inventory.
After all, many of those documents might not be in storage. They may be loaned out to another department or the courts – and the Clerk’s Office has to keep track of their whereabouts, too.
What goes in and what goes out are funnelled through just Belser and Miller – who often are schlepping dozens of boxes between storage locations in Monticello and Liberty. The idea, explained Briggs, is to ensure the integrity of the paper-handling process, especially with sensitive and sealed documents.
“You have to check and doublecheck everything,” said Belser.
If it seems like an overwhelming task, it is – and Belser’s patience is so thin you can feel the heat of his ever-simmering frustration.
He pointed out that the county provides them with a car, not a truck, to transport heavy boxes. And he could really use a third full-timer to handle the flow.
But the space issue is his most aggravating concern.
“We have mortgage satisfactions dating back to 1899,” Belser observed inside a row of decades-old metal cabinets. “Most people don’t even know we have these records back here. There’s no point in keeping them!”
As he put it, “archival and real-world value are two different things.”
But the oldest records are the ones the county is legally bound to retain. As an ironic result, the more recent records create just as many problems.
Though the bulk of those newer files aren’t required to be kept past 7-8 years, departments can often be slow to tell the Clerk’s Office when it’s OK to destroy them. Briggs said his staff won’t shred documents until cleared to do so, even if they’re past the retainage date.
So there are plenty of unneeded files sitting amidst the growing piles.
“The growth is exponential,” Briggs frustratedly observed. “So much for a paperless society, huh?”
The space issue has become so dire that the trio attended a May legislative committee meeting to plead with legislators to find them more room.
Briggs and crew are already eyeing another pole barn next to the one they have in Liberty, along with the Apollo Plaza and the current county jail, but the dream is to have a centralized facility where even town and village records could be stored and retrieved.
County leaders, struggling with a deep fiscal crisis, have said not to expect anything soon.
“Unfortunately, it’s a difficult time to be looking at building buildings when we’re balancing laying people off,” Legislature Chairman Jonathan Rouis matter-of-factly put it.
“To exacerbate the fiscal picture, the yet-to-be-finalized and adopted New York State budget may well shift serious costs to county governments and/or significantly reduce reimbursement rates and other revenues,” added County Manager David Fanslau. “Therefore, it would be imprudent to guarantee any particular staffing level, new vendor contracts, or new lease obligation or debt service related to records storage until the fiscal picture becomes more solidified.”
Fanslau added that the deteriorating economic situation means “there would be no reasonable justification to build and/or lease a building for records retention.”
The county, he said, wants to turn the Apollo into a tax-generating entity as soon as possible, and the current jail (which lacks air-conditioning) won’t be vacated for at least four years – so those options are gone.
But the county does own nearly 100 buildings, Fanslau remarked, so he’s working with Briggs and the Division of Public Works to identify useful spaces.
In the meantime, he said he’s not ignoring the paperwork issue and is pushing for department heads to purge their files.
“The policy goal must be to eliminate unnecessary paper from the source and at step one! I am working on a plan to be presented to the Legislature within the next two to three months that will address eliminating paper wherever possible, and eliminating unnecessary redundant practices that are not required by state statute or no longer make sense in the technological era of 2010.”
Grant funding has so far helped alleviate the load, but that revenue stream is rapidly drying up.
So Belser said they’ll take whatever the county can give.
“A drowning man accepts anything,” he remarked wryly. “We’re really drowning here!”

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