This County Convinced All Its Localities to Go Paperless

Ithaca, New York

Ithaca, New York Doug Kerr / Flickr.com

Tompkins County, New York, began digitizing land and court records dating back to 1817 a decade ago, with grants funding most of what blossomed into a shared service across all its local jurisdictions.

When County Clerk Maureen Reynolds was placed in charge of a records center—an old library with a leaky roof and a boiler set to blow—she initially planned on barcoding boxes and tracking only what her office wanted.

But the major caveat of her task was that she was told not to expect additional staff or money to handle the workload, so she went to a conference to explore alternatives and caught a Laserfiche demo.

“The public always says government is hiding stuff,” Reynolds told Route Fifty in an interview. “Well, we’re not. We just can’t find it.”

Before the enterprise content management system was adopted, the county’s payroll liaison had to take down all public records requests before getting down on her hands and knees with a flashlight to search boxes.

With Laserfiche, 200 years of meeting minutes can be scanned in seconds—all 9,000 boxes getting imaged in two years. Laserfiche’s optical character recognition was the selling point for the county, Reynolds said.

She estimates the county saved between $2.8 and $5.5 million not having to renovate the records center it instead sold to be demolished to build apartments. No longer needing storage space and with an imaging center in the county seat of Ithaca, a network in place and institutional knowledge of the system and indexing, the county turned its attention to consolidating services.

“The county already had the tools and could save smaller municipalities, which didn’t have budgets to sustain records projects, a lot of money,” said Julie Conley Holcomb, Ithaca’s city clerk in an interview. “They’ve done a great job increasing server capacity to digitize more records, so we can make them available to the public and internally.”

Initially, six cities entered into joint partnerships with county, which provides the server and additional software licenses.

Reynolds, who’s been writing grants for 23 of her 27 years as clerk, was able to secure New York State Archives Local Government Records Management Improvement Fund (LGRMIF) shared services grants to finance the first and subsequent phases of the consolidation effort. About $150 million is available, collected from taxes on county clerk mortgage filings, through a competitive grant application process for pushing shared services.

Some small towns and villages in the county lacked IT support entirely and backed up records on thumb drives. Flooding caused by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012 led to the loss of hard copies in others.

Such places were the easiest to onboard, though Reynolds was surprised to find the county met no pushback.

“Sometimes people overthink a project, and it’s more just about getting out and talking to other governments,” she said. “We’re all doing the same thing. We all want to do it well. We all want to save taxpayer money.”

Ithaca, expected to be a holdout, was one of two municipalities in the county that already had Laserfiche, but it was underutilizing an older version and recognized the huge cost savings.

The Ithaca Police Department had no more room for felony case files, with its 25-year retention period, before the county stepped in.

Two valuable hand-drawn maps from 1893 and 1899 were recently scanned into the system by a private consultant, so they can be preserved from degrading.

Territorial records disputes are nonexistent because the county can’t access cities’ secure repositories, and municipalities remain in charge of their records decisions. While the county generally destroys all paper after scanning documents, cities can keep the hard copies if they so desire.

The final step of the process was digitizing every county jurisdictions’ municipal court records.

Tompkins County can even host the records of outside jurisdictions, exporting the images and data back to them.

Earlier this week, the county presented at the New York Department of State’s Local Government Innovation Summit.

“Given the state budget and declining resources, I don’t think anybody had any resistance or questioned that this was the right thing to do,” Holcomb said.

(Photo by Doug Kerr / Flickr.com)

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor for Government Executive’s Route Fifty.

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