Uncertain future for Madison County Recorder of Deeds
A Madison County Board member is on a mission to eliminate the Recorder of Deeds position in an effort to cut costs, a move the recorder calls a political maneuver that would destabilize the office’s services.
Chrissy Dutton, a Republican County Board member from Bethalto, says the office responsible for maintaining land records could be merged with the County Clerk’s office. Doing so could save the county at least $100,000 by eliminating the recorder's elected position, Dutton says.
Employees in the recorder's office could keep their jobs and no union jobs would be lost, Dutton said. The only job that would be eliminated would be the elected recorder's position itself. The county clerk would take those responsibilities and oversee a deputy recorder and other recorder's office employees.
The bi-partisan Finance and Government Operations Committee approved the resolution at its meeting Wednesday morning. The proposal is expected to go before the full board at next week's Wednesday meeting, said Tom McRae, a Republican County Board member on the Finance Committee.
Recorder Amy Meyer, a Democrat from Edwardsville, defended her office.
Consolidating the recorder’s office could overwhelm the clerk’s office, whose workers are not experienced in handling land records, Meyer said in a phone interview Tuesday.
The clerk’s office is responsible for maintaining vital records like birth and marriage certificates, while the recorder’s office processes documents for title companies, lenders and land buyers, among others. Workers at the recorder's office record and maintain more than 80 types of documents and process upwards of 200 documents daily, Meyer said.
Fees fund the office, meaning eliminating it would not result in savings for taxpayers, Meyer added.
“Any cuts to this office will have no direct impact on taxes,” Meyer said.
Dutton argues getting rid of the recorder position, an elected office, will save taxpayers by eliminating the recorder’s salary. In 2016, the recorder made $109,990.40, according to the Belleville News-Democrat’s public pay database.
“Even if it was $10,000 a year, it counts,” Dutton said. “It reduces redundancy in government and to me it’s very plain and simple. You look at the salary, you get rid of that, that’s an instant savings right there.”
Meyer's salary is funded by fees the office generates, Meyer said, meaning cuts to her salary would not be tax-based.
Excess funds from the recorder's office go back into the general fund, Meyer said.
Details of implementing the plan
The recorder's office has become more automated, said McRae, the Republican county board member. Increased automation would make the job easier for the clerk's office to absorb, McRae said.
But outside of the resolution, Meyer says she has yet to see any details on the proposal. She said she remains skeptical about how eliminating the office would save taxpayers money.
“At the very least I believe elected board members have a duty to ensure what they are putting forth to them is based upon factual information,” Meyer said. “I have seen zero factual information to back up this resolution that is supposed to be coming forward.”
The recorder also questioned what would happen to the office's efforts to digitize its collection of historic documents and expressed concern about whether the office's fraud-prevention efforts would continue.
Meyer pointed out there is no feasibility study planned to analyze how eliminating the office would affect its services and operations.
Dutton said she would support a feasibility or cost-analysis study, but added that it could only represent an additional expense.
“I don’t know what we need to do a cost study on when we can just say it’s within our right to let our voters decide this. It’s just a no-brainer for me,” Dutton said.
If the county board approves the resolution, the question would be presented to the public in a countywide referendum. The county board would have to approve the referendum, which could go to voters as soon as the November midterm elections.
The measure has yet to go before the board.
A midterm election year issue
The county recorder says Dutton is motivated by political hopes for the November election.
The Republican board member was appointed in December 2016 to Chris Slusser’s county board seat when he was elected county treasurer. Dutton, who ran for county board and lost in 2012, says she does indeed want to be elected to the position in November.
“I do want to get re-elected. I want to stay involved. I’m just getting underway,” Dutton said. “That’s not the issue. This (eliminating the recorder’s office) is nothing new. It’s definitely not a Democratic or a Republican issue.”
But Meyer argues it is an empty political issue aimed at wooing voters in an election year.
“There’s no hard evidence of a cost savings, no plan in place going forward,” Meyer said. “The resolution indicates there will be hundreds thousands of dollars saved with improvements in customers service. However, I have seen no hard figures to indicate where this savings will come from.”
In 2016, the budget for the recorder’s office was $559,057 and in fiscal year 2017 it was $474,479. The proposed budget for 2018 is $454,600, marking a continued decrease in the office’s coffers. Meyer called the 20 percent cut from 2017 to 2018 “draconian” in a December county board meeting.
Board members have supported other cost-saving efforts since Republicans took a majority in the county board in 2016.
Most elected officials and board members taking office after November will not see raises if the county board approves a measure moved forward by the finance committee, said McRae, the Republican board member .
In December, the board cut funding for early voting in addition to the recorder’s office, while public safety saw an increase in funding.
Recorder of Deeds in other Illinois counties
Illinois law allows counties with more than 60,000 residents to have a separately elected recorder, but the law does not require them to have one. The Illinois Constitution only requires counties to have elective offices for county board members, sheriffs, clerks and treasurers.
Only 25 of the state’s 102 counties have more than 60,000 residents, and only 16 of those counties have separate recorder and clerk offices, according to a feasibility study from Winnebago County, which is considering a merger. Of the nine remaining counties, three have always had a combined office and never opted to separately elect the recorder, and four have consolidated the two offices.
Madison County isn’t the only county to consider eliminating the recorder's elected position.
Chicago voters in Cook County voted in a 2016 binding referendum to eliminate and merge their Record of Deeds office, according to WTTW Chicago Public Media. Supporters of the endeavor said it will save the county as much as $2 million annually once it goes into full effect in 2020, while opponents said that is an insignificant amount of money in the city’s budget, the PBS television station reported.
McHenry County, northwest of Chicago, has a pending referendum in March on consolidation.
Tazewell County, near Peoria, recently approved a merger. County Clerk Christie Webb says the transition was smooth and will save the county about $80,000 annually. Their former recorder retired before the merger.
"I can’t tell you anything bad about it," Webb said. "The one issue I would have is the recorder’s division is on a different floor. Logistically, it makes it difficult, but we have a really good staff so it's not too much of a problem."
St. Clair County is one of the few counties with a separate recorder and clerk. Recorder of Deeds Michael Costello made $102,074.96 in 2016.
Costello declined to comment on whether the issue of eliminating the recorder’s office has ever surfaced in St. Clair County. Costello has held that office for more than 32 years.
In 2016, a Republican challenger to Costello’s office accused him of not going to work, an accusation Costello called “political garbage.”
The report from Winnebago County shows there has never been any indication of St. Clair County considering a merger.
See the full resolution
RESOLUTION TO PRESENT A PUBLIC QUESTION VIA A COUNTYWIDE REFERENDUM ABOLISHING THE OFFICE OF THE MADISON COUNTY RECORDER OF DEEDS
WHEREAS, Madison County government continues to make concerted efforts to address current and future budgetary constraints by streamlining governmental operations, improving efficiency and eliminating redundancy in operations, among other measures; and
WHEREAS, the Madison County Recorder of Deeds is tasked with keeping accurate records of land transactions for public and private review; maintaining official records of Uniform Commercial Code (UCC), liens and lien releases; and recording and maintaining other official records; and
WHEREAS, the key functions of the Madison County Clerk include maintaining vital records and other official records, administering elections, handling tax redemptions, and calculating tax rates; and
WHEREAS, functions that are narrowly drawn and administrative in nature provide an excellent opportunity for consolidation with another office; and
WHEREAS, record-keeping is an administrative function shared by both the County Clerk’s Office and the County Recorder of Deeds, with many of the Recorder’s duties aligning with already existing divisions under the Clerk; and
WHEREAS, very few of the 102 counties in Illinois have a separately elected Recorder of Deeds and Clerk, with the largest county, Cook County, voting to eliminate the Recorder of Deeds as a separate office in 2016; and
WHEREAS, it is anticipated that a merger of the Madison County Clerk and Madison County Recorder of Deeds could save the County hundreds of thousands of dollars annually through a more efficient provision of services while also centralizing record-keeping and improving customer service; and
WHEREAS, Article VII, Section 4(c) of the Constitution of the State of Illinois states, “Any office may be created or eliminated and the terms of office and manner of selection changed by county-wide referendum”; and
WHEREAS, 10 ILCS 5/28-8.1(a) states, “Whenever a proposition required by law to be voted upon before its adoption, other than a constitutional amendment, is submitted to the people, it is the duty of the Secretary of State to prepare a statement setting forth in detail Section or Sections of the law sought to be amended by the vote, together with statements and suggestions as may be necessary for a proper understanding of the proposition. The statements and suggestions shall be submitted to the Attorney General for his approval”; and
WHEREAS, it is a fundamental underpinning of our great country to provide taxpayers the opportunity to have input as to the functioning of their government and use of their tax dollars; and
WHEREAS, allowing the voters of Madison County the opportunity to determine the propriety of the proposed consolidation via a binding referendum is an opportunity to engage residents directly in our democratic process; and
WHEREAS, in order to consolidate and improve services by merging the functions and responsibilities of the office of the Recorder of Deeds into the office of the Madison County Clerk, the Madison County Board seeks to place a question before the electorate via a referendum on the November 6, 2018, countywide ballot seeking to eliminate the office of the Madison County Recorder of Deeds and merge its functions into those of the Madison County Clerk, as follows:
“Shall the Office of the Madison County Recorder of Deeds be eliminated and all duties and responsibilities of the Office of the Madison County Recorder of Deeds be transferred to, and assumed by, the Office of the Madison County Clerk by December 7, 2020.
[ ] Yes
[ ] No”
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, by the Madison County Board that the aforementioned question be presented to the electorate via a countywide referendum on the November 6, 2018 general election ballot; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the Madison County Clerk notifies the Secretary of State, and the Attorney General of this request for action.
Approved and adopted this 21st day of February 2018.