The backlog of real estate mail containing uncashed checks in the Erie County Clerk's Office should be eliminated within weeks.
County Clerk Chris Jacobs said his staff has worked 10 overtime Saturday shifts to process incoming mail that contained documents and fees for real estate transactions to be recorded.
But it could take another five months to clear a room full of thousands of property deeds and other documents that need to be verified before they can be returned to homeowners and banks, Jacobs said.
"We believe the light's at the end of the tunnel," Jacobs told Erie County legislators this week. "And we also believe that, by instituting a more efficient process and more hands-on management, that this will not happen again."
Employees have reduced the backlog of documents from 110,000 when he took office in December to about 80,000, he said.
Jacobs appeared before county legislators to explain what he has done to fix a breakdown in the process for handling real estate documents he encountered when he took office. At its worst point, some new homeowners had to wait as long as 18 months after they purchased their houses to get their original deeds returned.
Meanwhile, unopened mail with uncashed checks piled up.
Jacobs has pinpointed the start of the problem to a change in the way the clerk's office handled real estate documents implemented in January 2011 when Kathleen C. Hochul was the county clerk.
Pressed by legislators to say exactly who was to blame for the backup, Jacobs said he couldn't know all of the reasons that went into the decision to change how the documents were handled.
"When you make a decision on paper and you go to implementation, you have to manage that because things don't always go as planned," he said. "And you may have to make adjustments as you go along."
Jacobs said the overtime has cost his office $9,000. During those Saturday shifts, the office cashed a total of $792,571 in checks from backlogged mail.
Hochul has previously told The Buffalo News that her goal was to streamline the process for accepting real estate documents so that cashiers could immediately scan the items, making them available online within a few minutes.
Hochul, however, left the clerk's office a few months after the new process was put in place after winning the special election for the 26th Congressional District. Hochul has said she was in the process of training employees and implementing the new process when she left the clerk's office.
After that, the office was run by Deputy County Clerk John J. Crangle Jr. until Jacobs took office late last year after winning the November election.
"The employees had to know there was a problem," said Legislator Kevin R. Hardwick. "I guess my question is, could that not have been communicated to the top?"
Jacobs said he was told after he was elected that the office expected to catch up on the backlog in January and February, which is typically a slow period in real estate activity. The sheer number of documents, as well as the fact that new real estate records arrive each day, showed the office couldn't catch up without overtime and a complete review of the way the documents are handled, he said.