Another Opinion the Pantagraph refused to print

By John Butler

The initiative to abolish the office of County Recorder and have the County Clerk assume the duties of the office, is promoted as a way to save money and increase efficiency.  I am dubious that it will do either, and concerned that voters are being manipulated by facts and figures, that don’t add up.

County Clerk Kathy Michael contends that this is a trend 86 counties in Illinois have chosen to follow,  because clerks and recorders are essentially in the same business, computers and cross training of staff can lead to efficiency and cost saving.   I’ve heard the office is so automated, that this will be very easy.

Possibly someone should have taken a closer look at some of those claims.

It was the 1970 Illinois Constitution which established 18 separate Clerk and Recorder’s offices, and 88 combined offices, not a recent choice for efficiency.  With few land transactions, small rural counties don’t need a recorder, and all of those 86 are much smaller than McLean.  Populated counties have exponentially more transactions.  Our Recorders Office processes more in a couple of days than some counties do in a year.  So do we want to follow them?

Is this a trend?  Only two counties have ever voted on this, both much smaller and with older manual offices.  They had all the predictions of money saved too.  Didn’t happen.  Nearby Tazewell is set to do this consolidation in December.  County Board members are already hearing from the County Clerk that she cannot save much money.  Oops.  Peoria, Champaign and Cook boards all voted against this.  Maybe our county board should have done a better job looking into this.

Are the jobs and records similar?  The Clerk files copies of birth, death and marriage certificates, voter registration and similar records, mostly one or two pages, with not much input into the content or legalities involved and standard fees. They make a copy one time, put it in the books.  Fairly simple to administer.

The Recorder handles about 3,000 legal documents each month, about 300 different types, many with differing statutory filing rules they must constantly  apply, average 22 pages in length, and employees have to be trained to pull the important informational elements out of these documents to create unique complex original index records for each one.  Each is priced uniquely based on differing state rules and page counts, and he processes over $2 million dollars a year in these constantly changing payments without error.  His new systems to catch property fraud, that the FBI calls the fastest growing financial crime, recently saved a family’s home.  I think they are voting NO.  Similar jobs?  Don’t think so.

Lee Newcom, McLean County Recorder, who will be out of the job if this passes and does all of that, has given us a warning that no one seems to be discussing.  He says there won’t be any saving or cross training here either, because the two offices don’t have a procedure, practice, computer system or anything even remotely similar to combine, except maybe the photocopier and telephone.  He notes his office has little turnover and highly trained employees to do all of this, while the clerk has fired 9 employees in less than two years and has problems of her own to manage.

The state is about to introduce a new electronic system to process land documents and process all taxes and payments, creating a constant flow of electronic documents from financial institutions, received, processed and returned in minutes.  It is projected to consume 50% of recordings within 1-3 years, and 80% in 5 years, all governed by national processing uniform standards so all financial institutions can record in any state or county electronically.

Newcom does know a little something about this as he actually wrote the law.  The Secretary of State’s Electronic Recording Commission had Newcom write the complete administrative law, which will govern all of this for the entire state, and is one of a handful of recorders nationally who is consulted by the Property Records Industry Association in writing national electronic recording standards and practices.  He says this would be amusing if it were not so potentially disastrous  Kathy Michael having to run an office by the state rules, regulations and processing standards he wrote, and assuring us all just how easy it will be.

I don’t see anything about this that makes sense, am convinced it may not save any money at all, and believe we are potentially giving away a tremendous county asset. If this goes wrong, there is no going back.  This decision reminds me of business decisions where spending money today saves money into the future.  I think the saying is – “Do not be penny wise and pound foolish.”

I join the League of Women Voters and Farm Bureau in recommending a NO on the Recorder referendum.

John Butler is Vice Chairman of the County Board Finance Committee.
He is a financial adviser with Chesser Financial and a CPA.

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