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Clerk's Office brings backlog of unopened mail up to date

An estimated $3 million in checks that had been languishing in unopened mail in the Erie County Clerk's Office have been deposited, and "the unprecedented backlog is current," County Clerk Christopher L. Jacobs said Sunday.

"The Land Records Division is presently processing mail and depositing checks in two to five business days," Jacobs told The Buffalo News.

The clerk's staff has been working overtime on Saturdays for 10 weeks to catch up with the backlog, Jacobs said, but weekend overtime no longer is necessary since the work is current.

"This is a major accomplishment, but more remains to be done," the county clerk said. "Our processing of original documents still is on backlog, and it will take a few more months to clear that up."

He said there were two separate problems.

One problem was that thousands of checks payable to the county were in the unopened envelopes, and that backlog has been solved.

The second problem is that thousands of property deeds and other real-estate paperwork not involving checks or payments still must be processed.

The deeds and other property records can be brought up to date without more overtime work, Jacobs said, and at no additional cost to the county.

At its worst, some new property owners had to wait as long as 18 months to get their original deeds back after taking them to the County Clerk's Office for recording and filing.

Jacobs is expected to discuss details of the work during a news conference at 10 a.m. today in his office in Old County Hall, 92 Franklin St.

"The solution is in hand, and we can see the light at the end of the tunnel," he said.

Jacobs estimated that the Saturday overtime work cost the county about $9,000, but he said it was worth the cost because of the amount of money recovered through the deposit of the uncashed checks.

Jacobs, a Republican who took office late last year, traced the start of the problem to a change in the way the Clerk's Office handled real estate documents. The change was implemented in January 2011, when Kathleen C. Hochul was the county clerk.

None of the uncashed checks or unopened mail dated from Hochul's time in the County Clerk's Office.

Hochul, a Democrat, left the office in late May 2011 after she was elected to the House of Representatives for the 26th Congressional District.

Jacobs said the new system for processing real estate documents was not fully implemented after Hochul left that office. The office was administered by Deputy County Clerk John J. Crangle Jr. for several months after Hochul left and before Jacobs took over. Crangle retired late in 2011.

In a report to the County Legislature, Jacobs would not say who he thought was to blame for the backup. He said he couldn't know all of the reasons that went into the decision to change the system for handling the documents.

"Things don't always go as planned," he said, "and you may have to make adjustments as you go along."

Hochul said earlier that the system was changed to streamline the process so cashiers could scan the items immediately, making them available online within minutes. She said she was in the process of training the staff and implementing the process when she left that office.

"The goal was to be able to scan, index and return documents to customers before they left the counter," she said earlier. "It wasn't complete when I left. I cannot speak to where it broke down after I left."

Jacobs said Sunday that scanning the items slowed the cashiers' processing, instead of speeding it up.

He said the office has returned to an earlier procedure in which the cashiers accept the items and issue receipts, and then the documents go to other employees for scanning, verification and posting online.