Pennsylvania county row offices are challenged each day to efficiently manage the intake, processing, and maintenance of documents and information that is the legal foundation of today’s society. Row offices, including the Recorder of Deeds, Register of Wills, Prothonotary and Clerk of Courts record, organize and store varied public information, such as marriages, owners and mortgagors of real estate, criminal records, civil lawsuits, wills and inheritance records in their counties.
Despite these staggering responsibilities, mandated on counties by the legislature, they are usually not provided with sufficient funds to match the volume of the work that must be done. Counties across Pennsylvania are being squeezed by the “new normal” of doing more with less. Budgets are being cut, funds are being diverted and some sources are being eliminated.
The information age has compounded the challenge for counties. Today’s constituents are living in a 24-7 instant access world. They have an expectation that they should be able to access information and conduct transactions online. The world has changed, and government entities are finding they must keep up with constituent expectations about how technology should be employed to make their lives easier.
To address these needs, counties are adopting new technologies, converting paper documents to digital and providing online access to records. Counties have now discovered that employing new technology benefits them as much as it does taxpayers.
In light of the situation, counties become more resourceful in identifying and instituting funding sources that will help underwrite the technology and records improvement costs.
In Pennsylvania, there are three models for funding counties’ growing technology needs.
1. General Fund Appropriations
One method available to all Pennsylvania counties to underwrite the cost of technology and document management is through the County’s General Fund Appropriation. Departmental and county office budgetary requests are considered by County Commissions prior to final funding decisions. Since the amount of the total General Fund is dependent on revenue streams that may be stagnant or declining; such as state and real estate taxes; this model may have limited impact. Many county row offices are fortunate that they generate revenue for the generate fund, and this fact can be used to procure budgetary concessions from the county commissioners.
2. You Can Create a County Records Improvement Fund Under PA State Act 8 Law
In Pennsylvania, Act 8 of 1982, as amended in 1982, established a county Records Improvement fund from a $5.00 fee charged for recording every deed and mortgage by the Recorder of Deeds. A portion of the fees, ($3.00), collected are retained by the recorder of deeds office to “support development and improvement of office records management activities and systems.” The remainder of the fee is used to create a separate County Records Improvement Fund, whose purpose is to fund a “comprehensive records management plan” for all county offices.
The law limited the fees to services performed by the recorders of deeds in second A, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth class counties. In order to comply with the law’s requirements, qualifying counties must create a County Records Improvement Committee to develop recommendations on a records management and expenditures. The committee must include the county commissioners, sheriff, prothonotary, clerk of court, register of wills and treasurer. The commissioners are mandated by Act 8 to adopt and administer the comprehensive records management plan, and all purchases must be made through regular county budgeting, contracting and procurement practices and administrative procedures.
More importantly, the County Records Improvement Fund must be audited and administered separately from the general fund. Any unexpended balance, as well as any interest earned, must remain in the fund to accumulate from year to year. Those funds can be used to automate or improve records in any county office.
County row offices can propose requests to the committee for records improvement monies, which would effectively amend the comprehensive records management plan. Any requests should be consistent with the committee’s established protocols and budgetary encumbrances, in order to ensure funds are available for document conversion or other large-scale projects.
3. You Can Enact A Records Improvement Fee
A third method to help counties underwrite the costs associated with technologies to digitize and automate documents is to enact a records improvement automation fee. The advantage of this funding option is that 100% of the fees collected can be retained by the row office that establishes them, and the county officer has control over their budgeting, encumbrances, and overall strategy.
Under Pennsylvania law, court-related row offices in third through eighth class counties can charge a records improvement fee. Any fees collected would be retained and controlled by the row office that instituted them.
The implementation process requires that the fees are first added to the row office’s fee bill and then the President Judge that presides over that county’s court must ratify the fee bill. Many Pennsylvania 2nd and 2A class counties are also utilizing this method, since it bypasses legislative action if the fees are approved by the President Judge.
Once the records improvement fee(s) are enacted by court action, the office can generate revenue from transactions handled by the office. Many counties hold these funds outside of the row office’s and county’s general operating funds, since they are specifically designated for the purpose of records automation and improvement. These accounts must be subject to public audit. Many counties have established purchasing protocols for these monies, as well.
In order to meet the needs of today’s constituents, counties must learn not only how to employ technology, but also how to establish funding sources to help underwrite the costs.
We hope this overview of three potential funding options provides you with a good starting point for fully funding your county’s records improvement program.