County to consider elimination of recorder's office
URBANA — Voters may be asked in November whether to eliminate the office of Champaign County recorder of deeds, an elected position that dates back to 1833.
County board members will begin discussing the possibility of terminating the office at a committee of the whole meeting Thursday evening. The county board would have to vote by August to put the question on the general election ballot.
In neighboring McLean County, voters in November 2012 approved eliminating the office and folding its duties into the county clerk's office. The move has saved the county more than $100,000 in the former recorder's salary and benefits, according to County Clerk Kathy Michael.
"And I think it's gone really well so far," she said. "We reached out to the attorneys and the title companies that use the office, and the staff the recorder has left has been absolutely wonderful."
The saving in Champaign County would be more modest — probably between $40,000 and $50,000 — according to County Administrator Deb Busey.
"There would likely not be the capacity to save entirely one full-time equivalent in Champaign County as there was in McLean County," Busey said in a memo to county board members. "We are a larger county with a higher volume of recording transactions. With the elimination of the elected recorder position, an additional line staff position would likely need to be added to maintain the staffing budget at the current 5.5 positions."
The saving would come in the difference between the recorder's salary (now $86,328) and a line staff position, Busey said.
It's an opportune time to discuss the change, she said, because the current recorder, Republican Barb Frasca, has said she will retire at the end of her current term, her fourth.
"We would not be negatively impacting a sitting elected official, and doing it two years before it actually goes into effect, that gives us two years into the transition, and no one will have completely geared up a political campaign to try to take the office if this decision is made in November," Busey said.
Still, Frasca opposes the move.
"I am now and have always been opposed to combining the offices. I don't think they can show enough, if any, benefit that would counteract the loss in services and possibly revenue," Frasca said in an e-mailed response. "The recorder's office is a major revenue generating office which is generally self-sufficient.
"This topic has been a monkey on my back since I took office. I have never seen a tangible benefit. I think the old adage applies: 'If it's not broke, don't fix it.'"
Frasca said she has no one in mind to succeed her in 2016 but added, "I think it will be sad to lose the autonomy that I have had to run the office effectively. I would definitely ask for some solid numbers on savings."
County board member James Quisenberry, an Urbana Democrat, said he believes the change could lead to efficiencies.
"(Frasca) has repeatedly come to us about her understaffing issues. In the current model, we would eventually need to expand their staffing. As a part of the clerk's office, the peaks and valleys of workload are such that staff could be cross-trained to assist from one side to the other," he said. "That is not a real savings in terms of spending being cut, but from a standpoint of efficiency, it means we won't need to address one department's peak need for staffing by adding personnel."
He said he wants to see the issue on the ballot this fall, just as county voters weighed in two years ago on whether to get rid of the elected county auditor.
"I think it is a good idea, but having it on the ballot allows a public discussion of the merits. Even though I didn't think getting rid of an elected auditor was a good idea, I supported it being on the ballot for the same reason," Quisenberry said. "The time is right for the discussion because from all available information, the current recorder is not going to run again. That makes it less about how well (or poorly) an individual is doing the job and more about whether we need the elected office or not."
Mahomet Republican John Jay said the 10 GOP members of the county board hadn't discussed the possible change but added, "I think we'd be open to listening to it."
County Clerk Gordy Hulten, a Republican who so far is unopposed for reelection this November, said he is staying out of the debate over the issue, which would have his office taking over the functions of the recorder's office.
"Honestly, my first reaction is that I'm sad to see that (Frasca is) retiring," he said. "Ultimately, if the board and the voters decide to shift those responsibilities to our office, we'll have two years to rely on her expertise and experience, and that of her excellent staff, to make the transition as smooth as possible."
The recorder's office serves an administrative function, filing and maintaining records related to property transactions. It also is responsible for recording and storing subdivision plats, land surveys, monument records, military discharge records, foreign birth certificates and foreign marriage licenses.
State law says that in counties with populations less than 60,000, the county clerk also is the recorder. And in counties with populations greater than 60,000, the offices can be combined. That's happened in six counties, including McLean. (Editor's note: An earlier version of this story included Macon County in this list, based on the county board memo from Champaign County Administrator Deb Busey. But Macon County has an elected recorder.)
Only 19 counties — most of them with populations greater than 100,000 — operate with an elected recorder of deeds. If Champaign County eliminates the elected recorder of deeds, it would be the largest county in the state with the combined office.
Champaign County has had a recorder of deeds since the county was founded in 1833, but for nearly 100 years the circuit clerk and recorder's offices were combined. In 1932 the county got its first full-time recorder of deeds, C. Ross Mills.
Frasca said her office has county records dating to 1833.