Thursday, August 21, 2008

Westchester Guardian/Catherine Wilson.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Catherine Wilson, Bureau Chief
Northern Westchester

Saving Tax Dollars And Improving efficiency At the County Clerk’s Office!

It can be done! Our local government agencies can protect our environment and save tax dollars while improving service to taxpayers to boot.

A shining example of how this is being accomplished can be found in the Westchester County Clerk’s Office.

The Guardian met with Westchester County Clerk Tim Idoni to discuss developments in his office.

“We are making changes in every area” Idoni told The Guardian. “We are eliminating as much paper as we can and switching to electronic online filings where possible. But because it’s such an overwhelming project, we’ve started with the Tax Certiorari cases.”

Tax Certiorari cases are commercial tax filings to challenge their property tax assessments. “We picked these cases to test first because they are seasonal, half in the Spring and half in the Fall, are only a small volume of cases - there were only 21 cases filed this Spring - and the nature of these cases.

A tax certiorari case can take four years to develop so a delay in testing a glitch in a new computer system will not jeopardize them. Plus, they do not involve individuals so any problems we encounter during testing can be fixed without damage to anyone,” said Idoni.

Idoni is developing a system to accept all tax certiorari cases as “e-filings” – filings that may be done online. “The biggest problem we are having with developing this system is not with the filers, it’s with the individual municipalities who still will not accept service of these notices via e-filings.

They still want this done in hard copy. So we have to amend each of the municipal laws for this. But efilings result in less mistakes
and we currently get quite a few cases thrown out by our office because of mistakes,” Idoni said. Once the municipality’s concerns can be addressed, Idoni hopes to switch all commercial efilings, including torts, to an e-file system.

“In total, commercial efilings represent 16,000 cases with the County Clerk” he noted. “They represent 60 percent of all paper filed with our legal division – four years documentation for a commercial property can result in a lot of paper; over 1.2 million pieces of paper each year. We’re trying to get this worked out for the Fall season,” he said.

Turning to the bigger picture, Idoni told us, “New York State needs to upgrade its systems in order to be able to handle this. We are actually ahead of the state in terms of the modern nature of our IT,” Idoni noted.

“We have to file our papers through the state’s system at this point. What we’d like are systems that talk to each other so we can move these records back and forth.” Idoni noted that the County Clerk’s office is now forced to record some documents twice – once
electronically on their system, and the second time on hard copy papers for the State.

Currently the County captures papers filed in its office on a computerized imaging system for security and easier access. But many state agencies still do not have a system that enables them to access digitally stored records, or the agency, such as the NYS Court
system, still mandates hard copies.

This reporter visited the area Appellate Court in June and witnessed the incredible amount of paper submitted in just one day alone – nine physical copies of each and every record for every case! Paper copies that are not necessary at all since the court records are all on file online in the County Clerk’s office. If the Appellate Court wants to review a copy of the record for the appeal, all the judge has to do is pull it up online – no papers are needed at all. So why are our courts so behind the time and costing local taxpayers so much money on a daily basis for paper that is completely unnecessary?

“My office has four staff members whose sole job is to transfer papers back and forth to the Courts!” Idoni stressed. “They have to man the counter, pull the papers off of the shelves, and run them over to the storage facility,” he said.

One of the significant cost savings of an e-filed system is the elimination of filing cabinets and the space needed for those files, some of which must, by law, be kept indefinitely (such as land records).

Paper files also require security systems, fire-proof and water-proof storage and frequent checks of the integrity of the files (i.e. papers are not misfiled in wrong folders). Plus, papers can be lost in a disaster – records in New Orleans were washed away in Katrina.

Keeping paper records increases the chance of loss and destruction every time those records are moved – if an employee works from home, those papers could be lost in a car crash or a kitchen fire. The Veteran’s Administration almost lost 26 million records, and sensitive personal information, when an employee’s laptop was stolen.

E-files eliminate that risk since the files are accessed from a central data base, not stored on separate computers or file cabinets and subject to an individual’s preferences.

Plus, e-files are easily backed up offsite, eliminating total loss from a disaster like 9/11 or Katrina.

E-files can be recovered immediately following a disaster. New Orleans will be missing records, affecting people’s lives, forever.

Yet despite all of these risks, the New York State Court System has yet to change the NYCRR rules to accept either e-filings or online access to scanned records on the County Clerk systems. The County Clerk has had the ability to provide the Courts with access to scanned records for almost ten years, yet our local Courts have as yet to change their rules to allow this, despite the significant cost savings and efficiency benefits that would accrue to taxpayers.

Other areas of the state have eliminated paperwork already. “We used to have 20,000 pieces of paper being transported down here each year from Albany for tax warrants on delinquent state taxes.” Idoni said. “They now e-file this information to us. Last year we did 23,000 warrants and will probably get 30,000 this year. The e-filings save a tremendous amount of manpower. We had to order over 400 folders just to file these papers alone. Those folders have now been saved – it’s a small expense, but it’s there!’ Idoni said. “We had a data entry clerk that did nothing but this.

And all those papers we used to image, scan into computer storage system, they no longer have to be imaged.” The County Clerk has not only saved money with these system improvements, but is also earning revenues for the County from their use.

“My predecessor, Nick Spano, set up a subscription service for title and property searches for the title insurance companies. We charge $1,200 a year for access to our system. But we had such a demand from individuals for online access that we now offer a 24- hour access for $20”.

A homeowner, assembling information for a local variance request, can pay to access the County Clerk’s system to obtain all the information needed. “Our system will eventually allow the user to access all information like section, lot, and block, as well as names and addresses,” he said.

Not only does this save a tremendous amount of paper for the County Clerk’s office to print this information out, but it also saves the user the cost of their time and gas to drive to the County Clerk’s office. These days, it’s cheaper to do this online! Plus, the user can access this information at any time, at their convenience, including nights and weekends, not just during office hours. Idoni said, “We’re averaging about 46 uses a week from this.

So that’s 46 fewer people coming into the County Clerk’s office and less time spent by the staff accordingly.”

The Clerk’s Office also has online images of County maps, 36,573 local maps can be accessed. Any local resident interested in new developments around the County can pull up the survey maps online, Westchester’s own version of Google Earth!

“The next area where we’re saving money is with Uniform Commercial Code filings,” Idoni said. “This is not a big area, but it represents where we’re going with our land records. UCC’s are co-op filings. Until early June these had to be filed by paper, 9,531 last year.

They generally average about three pages in length so that’s over 27,000 pieces of paper.

In the last two months, we had over 21% of the UCC’s e-filed. Now, this is not scanned documents. This is literally fill-in-the-form online. It goes into the system directly. The state allows for these to be signed electronically, signatures become a big issue when it comes to land records. Since these do not have to be signed, they can be filled in online. Zip it in; our person takes it and looks at it to check it’s the proper form, and simply records it. Nobody has to do any data entry, nobody has to do any copying, no machines getting jammed; people love it! I’m hoping by the end of the year this will be up to 50 percent and eventually everybody will do it,” Idoni said.

These improvements represent a ‘win-win’ from every approach. Individuals can access the information at any time around their schedules, not the County’s; they can save transportation and paper costs. The County saves money, and the environment keeps more trees. Idoni hopes to extend the benefits of the UCC e-filings to the rest of the Land Records Division and eventually to the Legal Division. “We have over four million pieces of paper that go through these areas every year,” Idoni said. “One hundred percent of our Land records are scanned and 100 percent of our Legal records.”

Apart from sensitive records such as Family Court cases, the scanned records can now be accessed online. “We now get fewer write-in requests for records,” Idoni noted. “We save paper, we save postage. We save staff time on research. The Office of Court Administration
may allow for some of these scanned documents to be destroyed so we do not have to keep the paperwork as well. The money being spent now on storage space for filing is outrageous.

Our hope is that certain kinds of cases will be allowed to be destroyed after a certain amount of years. That will save the County a tremendous amount of inventory time and inventory costs.”

Retention time for records varies depending upon the type of record. Inspection reports for municipal buildings must be kept for 21 years, whereas the master schedule for these reports must be kept permanently. The 4,000,000 legal and land records filed each year are added to the millions of records already on file that must be stored for decades and, in some cases, hundreds of years.

By eliminating the paper required for these files, and the storage facilities for their retention, the cost savings will be felt by both current taxpayers and future generations to come.

The papers currently held by the County Clerk’s Office require considerable handling before they are eventually recorded and filed. “Last year we filed 168,962 documents in our Land Records Division,” Idoni said.

These are the documents related to sales and transfers of property. “This equates to over 500,000 pieces of paper. Each of those pieces of paper has to be reviewed by an initial preparation person, they have to be then data-entered by a member of my group; then they
go down the hall where the financial aspects are processed; then over to the processing office who scans it; then all the documents are sent back to the attorneys and the title companies because we don’t keep the paper since we’ve scanned them. Obviously there’s postage, huge amounts of manpower, and finally, the recording papers have to be sent to the local tax assessors”.

The County Clerk’s office has a long-term plan to eliminate this paperwork and the incredible costs to taxpayers. “We’re working with the
title companies to input all of the data before they bring over the papers. This will save the Clerk’s Office about 10 employees.

The County Legislature,last December, authorized a half-million dollar bond to upgrade the soft-ware to get this done. Based on current year’s salaries, I estimate we will save $575,000 a year. And this is only the beginning.

But we need to change the state law to allow us to accept e-filings of these records.

This is something that is already done all over the country; New York State is rated 28th in the country in the way we handle the filing of these records.

The next stage for the Clerk’s Of-fice would be for citizens to be able to scan their documents and send them in and we would accept the scanned documents as opposed to handling all of the paper,” said Idoni.

These proposed new systems are concrete ways for our local and state governments to save money and to benefit everyone while hurting no
one. These are not cutbacks to services but improvements to systems. Idoni stressed that the savings from these systems would not be limited to the government agencies. “Think of the savings to law firms, title companies, and individuals. And that’s just from this first stage of improvements. California is already on their third stage – they don’t even accept deeds anymore.

Everything is put into a computer and they’re literally closing cases based on computerized documents. There’s no paper being signed anymore, they’re enotarizing!” Idoni noted.

In a computerized system, when all of the information on a record is put in up front, there’s only one chance for error and only one opportunity for records to get lost. When paper records are constantly being data-entered into a hodge-podge of systems across government agencies and offices, there are now as many chances for error and loss as there are systems.

So e-filings not only reduce time, manpower, and resources, they reduce the chance of error and loss and the audits and review processes needed to assure the integrity of the systems.

The information now only has to be audited once, not multiple times.

Currently in Westchester County, the information pertaining to a house sale is entered several times, at the title office, the law firm, the County Clerk, the Tax Assessor, the closer, the insurance company, and the bank, each step providing an opportunity for error.

Idoni noted that 20 percent of the paperwork the Clerk’s Office currently receives is incorrect and must be rejected.

The taxes due and other costs at house closings are estimated for an exact date. If those estimates are incorrect, or if the closing is delayed rendering the payments incorrect, the entire file must be rejected. As a result, the Clerk’s Office is not dealing with those filings once, but twice, and maybe multiple times until the final product is correct. E-filings would eliminate such redundant activity and would result in exact, accurate payments since the money due would be calculated at the time of filing.

“The computer system that we are developing would create their financial statement for the filing,” Idoni noted.

“Therefore, they can cut the check for the exact amount right away. So no more estimates of what will be due four days from now, or percentages getting mixed up and the title clerk pays $20 too much or $20 too little so the entire file is rejected for that! And that in turn saves my staff from having to review 20 percent of the documents twice.”

The first phase of this system is being built right now and Idoni expects this to be ready in January 2010. “The second part will be more difficult, the e-filing of the documents. But we have 18 months to prepare for it,” Idoni said.

Idoni noted that staff savings in his of-fice did not mean that people would lose their jobs. Any staff savings in one Division of the Clerk’s office could be used to replace retiring staff in other areas. “I’m freezing any new positions right now based on what we’re doing in Land Records” Idoni acknowledged. “I don’t want to hire someone new when I know we won’t need that person in another year.”

Idoni stressed that the Land Records system would have a tremendous impact on commerce and business in Westchester County. “When you bring
a new business in you usually buy a piece of property,” Idoni said. “This will speed the process along tremendously.”

Unfortunately New York State is delaying the process of changing the document handling systems in other areas. “I was hoping we would have the Corporation Filings System updated by the time you got here!” Idoni said.

“We are required to keep certain corporation filings. Even though corporations go through the New York State Department of State to process their corporation filings, we are required to keep the Westchester corporations records on file in our office. We’re hoping to be able to file those records similar to how we now handle the New York State tax warrants which will save us another 40,000 pieces of paper a year and about ten weeks of staff time a year.” Since most corporations access their filing forms online, allowing them to simply hit “send” when those forms are completed would save local taxpayers money.

The County Clerk’s Office also files all documents related to Workers’ Compensation cases. While these represent a small portion of the Clerk’s total time and work, only 800 cases and 5,000 pieces of paper a year, the information in these files affect the lives of injured and disabled individuals.

“If these were online, the individual could access their information easily. They may need these records to enforce their judgments so they get the money they are entitled to,” Idoni noted.

The County Clerk’s Office is also involved with the Internal Revenue Service to e-file federal tax liens affecting Westchester residents and businesses.

“We review all of the records we e-file, including records we are accepting from other agencies, to make sure sensitive information like social security numbers are not being posted online,” Idoni noted. “That was an issue with the IRS records. So we still need the human element here to review the information.”

“In the three years that I have been here we have had a few cases where a Land Records file never reached our office,” Idoni acknowledged. Idoni suggested that one possible way to eliminate this would be to have all records start at the County Clerk’s level. Lost records are especially a problem for litigants in the court system where all records are still kept in paper files and those files may be initiated at several levels. A court clerk handling multiple paper files could mix the papers up between files and currently there are no state-wide mandates for cross-audits between the courts and the County Clerk’s offices.

The Clerk’s office scans and records every piece of paper that they receive. But under current OCA and state laws, there is no mandate for an audit to compare the number of documents processed by the courts to see if it matches the documents recorded by the Clerks!

This issue of missing paperwork became apparent to this reporter immediately following this interview.

I took advantage of my trip to the County Clerk’s Office to obtain a certified copy of the custody order for my children for insurance purposes. The clerk easily pulled up a list of all of the scanned records in my divorce file (a lengthy list since my ex-husband is an attorney in the White Plains Courthouse and spends his free time papering our divorce case). But a review of this long list revealed that the custody order was never received by the County Clerk’s office at all. This critical document is missing from my file! Apparently no one in the courts verified that they were sending all of the papers related to the case to the Clerk’s Office.

So now I am faced with spending time and money to obtain a critical document that the Court had a responsibility to assure was available to me to begin with. The County Clerk’s systems, while saving the taxpayers incredible amounts of money, will only be as good as the individuals and systems providing the records for those systems.

And currently, the New York State Court system is the weakest link in the chain of document security and retention.

The Guardian encourages our readers to contact the Westchester Court Administration (phone: 914-824-5100, fax: 914-995-4111) to insist
that they update their systems and procedures to assure the integrity and security of our records and to enable the County Clerk to maximize the cost savings of his e-filing systems to the taxpayers.

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