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County to Consider Combining Register of Deeds, Clerk
County to Consider Combining Register of Deeds, Clerk

Grand Traverse County commissioners will consider a proposal Wednesday to combine two elected offices – the register of deeds and county clerk – into one position. The move could save the county $80,000 annually, according to County Administrator Tom Menzel, but faces strong opposition from staff and community groups.

Register of Deeds Peggy Haines is responsible for maintaining all land records for Grand Traverse County, including deeds, mortgages, tax liens and assignments. “There are 225 different document types handled in our office,” says Haines. “Our records date back to the mid-1800s.” The department works closely with banks, title companies, builders, mortgage lenders and other groups within the construction and real estate industries.

County Clerk Bonnie Scheele maintains vital county records – including births, deaths, marriage licenses and military discharge papers – as well as all civil, criminal and domestic records for 13th Circuit Court. Scheele also oversees county elections and serves as clerk to the board of commissioners. Both Haines and Scheele are elected officials who serve in four-year terms.

In a merger plan he will present to commissioners at their 6pm board meeting Wednesday, Menzel notes “both departments are responsible for vital records” and share overlapping functions and technologies. He says consolidating the offices – which are adjacent on the first floor of the Governmental Center – and cross-training staff to provide the services of both departments will allow the county to “streamline government services” and “demonstrate its commitment to sound fiscal stewardship.”

“It’s going to save at least $80,000 (in salary) starting in 2017, and possibly more beyond that,” Menzel tells The Ticker. “The real savings are not so obvious. That comes when you look at duplications in both departments and find ways to improve efficiencies.”

Menzel plans to create a detailed organizational redesign at a later date, but needs to meet a March 8 state deadline for combining the elected offices. Otherwise, the merger cannot take place this election year and would instead have to wait until 2021 to be implemented. Menzel acknowledges he’s received “communication from a number of groups lobbying to stop the consolidation,” but points out that “any efforts to change county services are often met with resistance and opposition.”

Since Michigan law was amended in 1954 to allow for the register of deeds and clerk positions to be combined by a county commission vote, at least 34 counties have consolidated the functions, Menzel notes. However, several other counties in recent years – including Barry, Isabella and Saginaw counties – have also rejected merger proposals, citing negative feedback from communities that combined the offices and concerns over impeded services and low cost-savings.

Both Haines and Scheele say they’ve also heard that feedback from their peers and plan to speak at Wednesday’s meeting opposing the proposal. “I’ve talked to clerk-registers across the state, and I don’t know any who say it’s a good thing, which worries me,” says Scheele. “It’s a four-year decision. You can’t take it back if it’s a mistake.”

Both officials say their departments provide unique, specialized services upon which the public heavily relies, positions requiring different skillsets and training. “I will not be running (for the combined post) because what we do is so different, I could not justify it to the public who’s electing me,” says Haines, who’s entering her 16th year as register of deeds. “You need expertise in these positions. If records are messed up, they’re messed up permanently.”

Scheele, who’s served Grand Traverse County for 30 years, says she plans to run for the combined office if the proposal passes, but is concerned about the workload and “huge learning curve” the merger entails. “We’ve already made cuts, increased revenues and implemented (technology) changes,” she says. “We have two of the most efficient offices in the county, so it’s an insult to imply we’re opposed to this simply because we are afraid of change.”

Outside groups are also closely watching the merger debate. CEO and General Counsel Jerome Jelinek of real estate services firm Corporate Settlement Solutions says Haine’s office is “critically important” to his company’s operations. “Every day for the 23 years we’ve been in existence, we’ve been in there (at the register of deeds),” he says. If property records fall behind or are inaccurate, it can have significant consequences for land transactions, says Jelinek.

“The concept of consolidation is great…and I do understand the idea of conserving resources,” he says. “But the practicality of getting the work done every day is where the devil is in the details. My concern would be the volume of work, and if one person will be able to do both jobs.”

Posted: Monday, February 08, 2016 12:52 PM by Jon Becker

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