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County clerk focuses on backlog of documents awaiting verification; Vows to clear paper jam, speed the return of deeds

Erie County Clerk Chris Jacobs had heard the stories of long lines and document delays when he ran for office.

But he had no idea of the scope of the problem until he saw the boxes.

More than three months of unopened mail sits in one room in the County Clerk's Office. Another room is filled with bins of real estate documents that have yet to be returned to attorneys. Some homeowners have waited more than a year to get their original deeds back after buying a house.

"It's just a nightmare," said Jacobs, a former Buffalo School Board member and real estate developer. "And it's unacceptable, and I think that it's solvable, too."

Jacobs, who took office late last year, has made addressing the real estate document bottleneck his top priority.

An entire year of mortgages, deeds and other real estate papers -- roughly 96,000 documents -- await verification with their electronically indexed versions before they can be returned.

Jacobs would like to see that wait time drastically reduced.

To address the issue, he plans to create a group of real estate professionals and county employees to work on a long-term solution. He has asked the County Comptroller's Office to review internal controls in the County Clerk's Office, and he plans to use overtime during the next several weeks to work through the unopened mail and document verification.

But other headaches come with the backlog.

He worries that checks mailed into the office with some documents could have expired, and an increase in the postal rates last Sunday means that prepaid envelopes sent in by some attorneys may no longer have enough postage to be mailed back.

It wasn't always this way.

Attorneys and other real estate professionals say the wait time to receive original documents used to be six to eight weeks, maybe 10 if there was a particularly high volume of real estate activity.

During the last year, however, the wait time grew. At the worst point, Jacobs said, it grew to as much as 18 months.

"Right now, if I were to record a deed today, I might not see it until next January," said Melanie C. Marotto, an attorney with Colucci & Gallaher who focuses on commercial and residential real estate. She will serve on the working group tasked with addressing the issue.

The wait time, Marotto and others said, has an effect on the real estate community -- from attorneys to title companies. For example, she said, banks that sell a mortgage on a secondary market need original documents or certified copies for the transaction.

Jacobs took over an elected office that had been vacant for eight months since Kathleen C. Hochul resigned as county clerk after winning a special election last May to represent the 26th Congressional District.

The office, during that time, was run by John Crangle, the first deputy county clerk. Crangle, who is also Town of Tonawanda Democratic chairman, retired at the end of last year.

Jacobs, after spending several weeks learning from county employees in the office, said he believes the issue with the real estate documents dates back to a change, implemented early last year, in how the documents are accepted, scanned and verified.

"The staff, it's no reflection on them," said Peggy LaGree, who is now first deputy clerk. "The process changed, and they're very frustrated by it."

It used to be that separate groups of employees did each task. One group would accept the deeds and mortgages to be recorded at the counter. Another would scan the document, and a third would verify that it had been properly indexed.

But early last year, the office implemented a new policy, with employees at the counters accepting and scanning the document immediately with the hope that the original document could be returned at the same time.

That never happened, Jacobs said, and instead documents began backing up waiting to be verified.

"It just languished," he said of the new process of recording and verifying documents. "I don't know exactly the reasons, but we're just going to try to solve it."

Those who frequently record real estate documents in the County Clerk's Office say they have seen a much longer wait time for the return of original documents.

James J. Contino, a partner with the Phillips Lytle law firm who concentrates on commercial and residential real estate development, confirmed the longer wait time but said he has found a trade-off in the new system.

Electronically scanned versions of the documents are available more quickly than under the previous system.

Contino said it's his practice to check through the online system within a few days to verify that documents have been properly recorded.

"Even though it's taking them a year or so to get documents back now, I think the availability online to get copies of recorded instruments almost immediately ameliorates some of the hardship which the delay might otherwise cause," Contino said.