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Change in Clerk's Office is controversial

By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO — April 20, 2010 — Last week, title searchers had to clear out their desks in the County Clerk’s Office.
This week, legislators may ask Clerk Dan Briggs to once again accommodate them – and Briggs is considering it.
On March 29, Briggs sent a memo to the title searchers and abstractors – people who research properties and their ownership histories for real estate and legal transactions – requiring them by April 12 to start taking home every piece of personal or business property.
“The nature of the notification was a little upsetting,” affirmed Rachel Brey of B&K Abstract Group of Monticello.
After all, she said, those working full days inside the Clerk’s Office’s Records Room had for at least 25 years been allowed to leave their personal and professional effects in that room – paperwork, computers, briefcases, even clothing, all ready to be reused in the morning.
Brey acknowledged the situation is rather unique, with private companies constantly using public space inside the county’s Government Center in Monticello.
But it’s a consequence, she said, of the necessarily speedy and accurate work she and other abstractors do, and they always paid for phone lines, copies and other materials provided by the county.
Indeed, various letters to legislators from local and regional title searchers confirm that tens of thousands of dollars are realized by the county annually thanks to all that activity in the Clerk’s Office.
And, added Brey, such space is provided in other counties, including Orange.
Arguing that such revenue would be realized regardless of accommodations, Briggs said he nevertheless understands the concerns. In fact, he did even more homework, contacting the clerk’s offices in all 62 New York State counties.
“About a third charged when space is available,” he explained. “A third asked them to remove items by day’s end, and a third let sleeping dogs lie.”
But even after talking with his clerk predecessors in Sullivan County, Briggs didn’t choose to “let sleeping dogs lie.”
“I’m trying to limit the exposure, limit the problems we had,” he said.
According to Briggs, those problems included certain title searchers soliciting the public for business within the office walls, being confused with the clerk’s own staff, having access to confidential files and cash boxes, and storing – or even locking – food and clothing in cabinets owned by the county.
The exposure issue was confirmed by the county attorney and the Office of Risk Management, Briggs added, noting that the Records Room’s walls were lined with equipment not owned by the county – thus creating a liability concern.
“I don’t think it appropriate,” he explained.
And what if other people and private companies want to set up shop in the Government Center, he wondered – wouldn’t he have to accommodate them, too?
Ironically, that may be where Briggs is headed.
Though he stressed he has yet to make up his mind, he acknowledged he’s considering such an alternative after talking with an attorney friend and some of the affected title searchers.
“My mind is not closed,” he pointed out.
But his authority as the elected official in charge of the Clerk’s Office is absolute, and he won’t budge if he’s not absolutely satisfied the matter is resolved permanently.
“I would want to see something that would safeguard the county in terms of liability ... and reasonable compensation,” he proffered.
Some abstractors have said they are more than willing to pay rent and indemnify the county to be able to conduct business in the Clerk’s Office.
Brey is interested in what Briggs may propose.
“We have to be in there every day,” said Brey, who estimated she’s had to spend about $1,500 in new equipment due to the procedural change. “... It’s been a little bit of a hardship.”
Some more so – Legislator Ron Hiatt has tallied at least three angry letters thus far.
So even though he has no power to force Briggs to change the new policy, Hiatt plans to bring the matter up at this Thursday’s Government Services Committee meeting.
He said he’ll likely advocate for a “modest rent and liability insurance” in exchange for abstractors being able to leave their equipment overnight.
“That should be enough of a hook to change [bad] behavior,” he said, “because that’s what he [Briggs] says is the problem there.”
Hiatt said he will not force the issue with Briggs, respecting his authority, but the legislator indicated that if Briggs balks, there might be other locations in the Government Center which could accommodate the title searchers.
Though acknowledging he didn’t solicit abstractors’ opinions ahead of the memo’s release, Briggs stood by his decision.
“It’s not a debate, it’s not a discussion,” he remarked. “It’s something I certainly did my due diligence on. Maybe I was right, maybe I was wrong.”
He doesn’t really think he was wrong, however, and several title searchers have privately confirmed to him that they’re glad he took the action – based on the misbehavior of some of their colleagues.
“In the end, maybe it was a good thing,” Brey observed. “Everybody in the building got involved [in discussing it].”
She said she’s been getting used to lugging her equipment in and out every morning and evening, and she’s had her chance to talk with Briggs.
“I think there will probably be a compromise,” Brey predicted, agreeing it may be in the form of rent. “And in the end, that will be good for everybody.”
Briggs does not believe he’s created a hardship for anyone, noting his office opens an hour earlier (at 8 a.m.) to allow the title searchers unencumbered access to the needed files.
“We are cognizant of the economy,” he said. “We are not looking to put people out of business.”
But, he added, he has a responsibility far beyond the title searchers.
“I’m obligated to the taxpayers to do what I feel is right,” Briggs said.

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