County facing storage space problem

Published 12:09 pm Friday, December 16, 2011

Several government offices in Decatur County are running out of space to store important documents, county commissioners learned Tuesday.

Commissioner Russell Smith discussed the issue at Tuesday’s regular meeting of the Decatur County Board of Commissioners, during the “commissioners’ remarks” portion at the end of the agenda. Smith said several government offices were facing a significant storage space problem, including the magistrate’s office, the probate office, clerk of courts, and the sheriff’s office.

“I really think they’re hurting and they’re fixing to start putting it out in the hall,” Smith said. “I think we need a building or some kind of storage area to put these documents.”

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There are several problems with keeping the documents in offices or out in a hall. First, many of the records are old and require a special climate-controlled storage area to prevent decay. Second, many of the documents contain sensitive information and should not be easily accessible to the general public.

County Administrator Tom Patton noted that some of the documents could be stored digitally, but many older records are already brittle and should not be handled. He said that the county has sought grant opportunities and other sources of funding for a storage building, but so far has been unsuccessful.

Board Chairman Dr. David C. “Butch” Mosely asked Smith for a “timeline for an action plan to deal with this problem.” Smith suggested that the issue should be placed on the agenda for the first meeting of 2012.

“We really need to address this issue and come up with a system for storage. If we don’t have a building, we probably need to construct a building,” Smith said.

Cecilia Willis, the county’s clerk of courts, said her department had asked for funds to start a large-scale digitizing of some of the courthouse’s old records, but that request had been cut from the most recent budget.

“Everyone is aware that there’s not a lot of money out there,” she said. “I don’t envy the commissioners who have to make those decisions. It’s one of those things that technically we can do without, for now, but it’s still something that will eventually be necessary.”

Willis said existing staff can scan in some of the newer records, but many older hand-written ones would require an outside firm, for liability reasons. If a staffer were to make a mistake or typo when entering the data from an old record, the county would be held responsible.

However, Willis said there are companies that can scan in an old hand-written record, as is. Then, a client can electronically search for a word or phrase, and special software will recognize the handwriting and bring up the requested documents.

“It’s amazing how accurate the handwriting recognition software is,” she said.

Willis said that when she began working as the clerk of court in 2009, she required for all documents received by the courthouse to be electronically recorded as well.

“Even if all you do is send us a blank envelope, we’ll scan that in and have a record of it,” she said. “Post-it notes, handwritten notes, anything that’s of record, we’re scanning now.”