LISBON - Columbiana County commissioners and Recorder Craig Brown both took steps Wednesday to alleviate the overcrowding created at the courthouse following a fire safety inspection.
Commissioners agreed to lease space at county juvenile court to one of companies performing mineral rights searches on behalf of shale gas drilling firms, while Brown announced he intends to make certain deed information available that should expedite the process.
Both actions were taken in response to an overcrowded situation resulting from Monday's surprise inspection of the courthouse by the Lisbon Fire Department's safety inspector after complaints were received about overcrowded conditions created by the small army of mineral rights researchers going about their business.
Following the visit, the inspector placed restrictions on how many researchers are allowed in the office at a time and ordered the removal of five folding tables in the courthouse basement hallway also being used by researchers.
This resulted in long lines of researchers waiting outside the recorder's office and other rooms for their turn to get inside to research and make copies of deeds stored on microfilm or in bound volumes.
The controversy also sparked a war of words between commissioners and Brown, with each accusing the other of failing to do their part to address the situation. Brown said commissioners passed on his suggestions, while they said the recorder has never provided them with a detailed plan to consider.
Commissioners at their 9 a.m. meeting agreed to lease office space to Western Land Services at the county juvenile court complex located in the former David Anderson High School. Western is to pay $1,000 between now and June 19, and then $20 per day afterwards until the firm vacates the premises.
This would accommodate about 30 mineral rights researchers currently assigned to the county by Western. Company official Sue Scott, who attended the meeting, said they will bring their own tables, chairs and a copier for the staff to conduct research. She said they could make copies of deeds and take them back to review.
Commissioner Mike Halleck, who has been critical of Brown, said they were forced to act quickly because of the "fiasco with the recorder's office" created by the safety inspection. He said they have been waiting months for Brown to bring them a plan for extending office hours but none ever materialized, forcing commissioners "to take it upon ourselves to find something that is workable."
Halleck said commissioners are also considering renting out more unoccupied county office space to other mineral rights research companies or possibly even relocating the entire recorder's office since there is no law requiring it be in the courthouse.
Brown said Western is one of about 10 such firms currently with researchers in the courthouse and he met with their representatives later Wednesday morning to discuss what could be done. He determined their greatest need is to get a look at the deed index book, which tells you where to go for deed information. To solve the problem, he intends to transfer the index information onto 10 flash drives and make them available to researchers. A flash drive is a portable storage device that can be plugged into a personal computer, allowing the information to be downloaded.
"The bottleneck (outside the recorder's office) is because of the index, so if we can get the index into more hands then the problem will go away," he said.
The cost of purchasing the flash drives is minimal but the more expensive component is transferring the index information from the 47 volumes, bringing the total cost to an estimated $4,700. Brown said the companies have agreed to cover the cost, but the upfront money to make this happen will come from his budget. He hopes commissioners will reimburse him once the companies pay the county.
"This is probably the most cost efficient way to address the problem, and quickest," he said.
Commissioners recently began allowing county juvenile court to keep its copying fees instead of letting the money go into the county general fund. Brown said it would greatly help his operations if commissioners would allow him to do the same or keep a larger portion of his recording fees.
As for extending office hours, Brown said it has to be a joint effort with commissioners and other officeholders since it will likely require additional funding for his workers and the courthouse security staff. He intends to ask for a meeting next week with commissioners and other officials to work out the details.
"I just need to get people in and out. How (commissioners) handle security and cleaning, that's their responsibility," he said, comparing the situation to being a mall tenant.
Brown said the companies such as Western Land would prefer their workers be scheduled times when they would have access to the deed data, and nine of the 10 companies agreed. The only dissenter was DPS-Penn, which felt this placed them at a disadvantage since it has the most workers and deeds that need researched. DPS works for Chesapeake Energy, the largest lease-holder in the county.
"I can't do it if everyone isn't on board," Brown said, adding this is why he decided to make the data storage devices available.
As for relocating the recorder's office, Brown heard commissioners were contemplating move him to the county elections board building once the elections board moves into the new county government services building. He said such a move would prove costly, not to mention the elections board building would be less than ideal since it had water and mold problems in the past.
"I think there are better ways to solve the issue," he said.
Halleck also questioned the timing of the safety inspector's visit since it occurred the same day a story appeared in the Morning Journal about Democratic commissioner candidate Joe Csonka criticizing them for failing to act on Brown's plan to make deeds available online.
Brown said they never requested the safety inspection because the courthouse situation, while crowded, was manageable until the inspector ordered the restrictions, which resulted in "putting more people in the hallway."
As for placing the deeds online, commissioners are opposed because of the potential loss of copying fee revenue and security concerns. Commissioners indicated it would also do little to alleviate the situation because only deeds recorded after 1999 have the Social Security numbers redacted, and the vast majority of deeds being researched are much older and would still have the numbers on them.
Brown was asked if the mineral rights researching was winding down. "It's just the opposite, because there's a growing interest in oil," he said.