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REPORT ON THE CONDITION OF MUNICIPAL RECORDS
Act 155, Sec. 66a of the 1998 Acts and Resolves instructed the Secretary of State to determine the condition of municipal records and the effectiveness of $1.00 preservation surcharge (32 V.S.A. §1671) as a means of ensuring that records are being adequately preserved and restored.
This study is primarily concerned with those municipal records required to be permanently accessible. These records include minutes of meetings, vital records, and the wide range of records generally referred to as land records.
The condition of municipal records varies not only from municipality to municipality but also within the different series held by each municipality. While most survey respondents characterized the majority of their records as currently being in adequate condition (not needing immediate conservation work), there is a clear need for long range preservation and conservation planning. There is strong support for continuing the preservation surcharge and keeping it dedicated to preservation. The condition of municipal records and the effectiveness of the surcharge should continue to be monitored by the Secretary of State in order to develop better baseline information. Sustained educational opportunities to provide common understandings of preservation and conservation needs should be supported. Both the potential of new information technologies for helping preserve records and the special needs for preserving electronic records must be explored.
This report should be reviewed in conjunction with the report of the Committee on the Computerization of Land Records, mandated by Act 125 of 1998, which covers many related topics.
Chapter II, Sec. 62 of the Vermont Constitution requires all deeds and conveyances of land to be recorded in the municipal clerk's office in their respective towns.
Municipal clerks, by statute and rule, must preserve and keep accessible a wide range of records, including all those associated with the marketability of title through Act 125 (1997, Adj. Session), the minutes of municipal boards, grandlists and vital records. Land records and grandlists are essential to the municipalities ability to raise revenue to support services.
Municipal minutes provide institutional continuity, evidence of actions and agreements, and public accountability.
Seventy-nine municipal clerks reported receiving a total of 152,945 records requests annually, most requests requiring the retrieval, handling and copying of numerous individual documents.
In 1997 land records supported over $1.5 billion in economic activity.
Aggregated survey responses indicate that one-third of the records in municipal clerks' offices are considered in good condition; 12% are considered fragile and the remainder show some signs of wear and tear.
Of the 119 municipal clerks who responded to a 1998 survey from the Secretary of State's Office, 91.6% kept their records in vaults (63.79% of which were at least four hour fire rated) and 5.04% kept their records in fire proof safes.
Of the responding clerks, almost 22% had temperature controls for their vault and almost 14% reported humidity controls.
Almost 44% of the respondents reported their vaults would be completely filled within ten years. Anecdotally, several clerks reported that space limits will be reached quicker than estimated because of additional records being filed under new marketability of title requirements.
In 1996 the General Assembly allowed municipalities who voted to do so to add a $1.00 surcharge to their recording fees to "be used solely for the restoration, preservation and conservation of municipal records." (Act 109, 1995. Adj. Session).
Of the municipalities responding to the survey, just over 79% had adopted the $1.00 preservation surcharge.
Just over 69% of the overall respondents wanted the surcharge to remain dedicated exclusively to preservation.
Seven percent felt the surcharge should be used for a combination of preservation and operations (including being put into the general fund).
Almost 53% felt that the $1.00 was adequate to meet preservation needs, while 31% were not sure.
The annual amounts collected under the surcharge ranged from Burlingtons $20,693 to Walthams $59.
The cost for restoring a single land record volume can range from $1,000 to $3,000.
Less than 11% of the clerks reported having long range preservation plans.
Just under 24% of the municipalities reported having long range conservation plans.
Forty percent of the respondents reported having on-going conservation programs.
Just over 51% keep computerized records.
Survey responses are aggregated and attached as part of this report.
THE CONDITION OF MUNICIPAL RECORDS: GENERAL COMMENTS
Determining the condition of municipal records is a bit like trying to nail jelly to the wall. Handling and copying, environmental conditions within the storage and office areas, and technological changes in record formats and media are constantly changing the condition of records. Natural disasters, such as floods, or other catastrophic events (fire, insect infestations, mold, etc) can rapidly and permanently alter the condition of records.
This report addresses two concepts: preservation and conservation. Preservation is all those steps, taken by the municipal office, that protect records and slow their deterioration. Conservation is the actual restoration of records and is usually performed by a conservation service. Preservation is most cost effective because it can avoid, or at least reduce, the need for expensive, item level restoration (restoring a single land record volume can run from $1,000 to $3,000).
Though this is not a preservation report, a sense of preservation concerns can be gained by looking at just two key factors: storage environments and use.
Storage environments are crucial to preservation. The rate of paper deterioration can be accelerated by a multiple of three simply by storing records at 78 degrees rather than 68 degrees.
High humidity causes the biological deterioration of records and encourages the growth of mold; low humidity reduces the flexibility of paper; light, including ultraviolet light, can result in fading, darkening, or actual structural breakdown of materials; dust and air borne pollutants cause physical and chemical damage to record material. Computer tapes and disks are even more dependent on good storage environments.
Records stored in volumes, as most land and vital records are, deteriorate faster than those stored in archival boxes and folders. Special storage devices, such as hanging map files, can help prolong the life of a record. Ink quality and the printing method effect longevity (ink jet printer manufacturers usually will not guarantee the longevity of the print beyond thirty years).
Even with ideal storage conditions, physical handling, photocopying (often of oversized records), and other factors associated with use, accelerate deterioration. Municipal records are in constant use.
Consider that in 1997 there were 35,362 property transfers in Vermont, each requiring use of existing municipal records and the recording of additional instruments. Lawyers and surveyors who work with land records estimate they may handle forty or more individual documents per title search or up to two hundred documents for boundary and survey research. The seventy-nine clerks who provided useable data on annual use reported 152,945 records requests, usually entailing more than one document per request. In other words, municipal records are handled, statewide, millions of times a year.
To cite an example of how rapidly use can change, consider what happens when a long held family farm or a paper corporation's forest land are developed. Surveys and deeds which may have not been touched for decades, suddenly receive constant use and copying as the land is sold, sub-divided, and re-sold.
Consequently the preservation and conservation of records are long term investments. There is a need for long range planning for records care, for sustained and progressive education to help inform local preservation and conservation decisions, and for sustained funding not only to support planning and education but also to recognize the constantly changing condition of records.
A municipalitys permanent records should be viewed like any other capital expense, though unlike a road grader or office building, they usually cannot be replaced. The preservation surcharge is a step toward linking mandates to permanently maintain certain records with the need to fund that responsibility.
1. Most municipal records, according to self-assessments done for the survey, are in adequate condition.
The majority of municipal records were described by survey respondents as adequate (53% of the paper records were considered adequate; 61% of the maps; and 52% "other"). Adequate was defined on the survey as "showing some wear and tear, weakened but intact bindings, no need for immediate conservation." Only 35% of the paper records and 30% of the maps were described as good ("no rips, good binding, stable medium such as mylar or alkaline--`acid free'--paper, no fading of ink, etc.").
These responses, plus conversations with Vermont vendors providing conservation services, suggest that clerks are attempting to keep up with conservation backlogs within the available resources (now complemented by the surcharge). What is missing are municipal preservation and conservation plans; plans that could be implemented with surcharge funds.
As noted above, the survey results should not be considered hard data because there is no common understanding of preservation needs, nor tools for doing effective self-assessments. Lack of long range preservation plans means that records currently assessed as "adequate" and even "good" may soon need conserving. Finally, increasing use, inadequate storage environments, and the other factors mentioned above make preservation and conservation on going processes.
2. There is broad support for the preservation surcharge.
Almost 80% of the survey respondents had adopted the surcharge and 69.49% wanted it to remain dedicated to preservation. An additional 7.62% wanted it to be used for preservation in combination with some other purpose.
The respondents who did not support the surcharge, or did not want it reserved for preservation, most often argued that they received adequate preservation funding through the municipal budget or that the keeping of a separate account for the preservation surcharge was too burdensome.
3. The voluntary nature of the surcharge creates administrative problems for non-surcharge municipalities.
Numerous state and private entities must record documents with municipalities around the state. There is no guide to which municipalities have adopted the surcharge so these entities simply include the preservation surcharge with the recording fee. Since the surcharge can only be applied if formally adopted by the municipality, and by statute must only be applied to preservation purposes, non-surcharge municipalities must return the dollar. The handling and postage associated with refunding the extra dollar wastes time and money.
4. It is too soon to determine the effectiveness of the surcharge.
The relative newness of the surcharge, the different dates it was enacted by municipalities, the limited baseline data on how much individual municipalities will raise annually, the disparity in amounts collected, and the lack of commonly understood preservation needs and strategies make it difficult to determine the effectiveness of the surcharge.
One sign of this is that almost a third of the survey respondents did not know if the dollar surcharge was adequate. They simply did not yet have enough experience. Similarly, less than half the municipalities collecting the surcharge have yet expended it on preservation purposes. In some cases this is because they have not raised enough to fund projects; in others it may reflect the lack of a plan to guide preservation or conservation expenditures.
As noted, despite the lack of experience, support for the surcharge remains high and there are numerous anecdotal accounts of how the surcharge has aided individual municipalities.
Measuring effectiveness was hampered by two other factors:
----lack of guidelines on what qualifies as restoration, conservation, and preservation under 32 V.S.A. §1671(c)(1). Types of questions we received ranged from whether the money could be spent to built vaults, provide shelving, or be applied to computerization (creating an index database to land records to cut down on the handling of index cards).
----the greatest problems, however are the lack of a common understanding of preservation practices and the lack of long range preservation and conservation plans. This is discussed below.
5. There is a need for sustained and progressive education on preservation and conservation
Long range preservation and conservation planning is essential not only to the continued accessibility of municipal archives, but also to the most effective use of funds generated by the surcharge and other sources. Currently, however, there are not sufficient tools for municipal clerks to create effective plans.
Survey responses, on-site visits to clerks' offices, and conversations with clerks underscore the need for sustained educational opportunities on preservation, conservation, and planning. The survey indicates, for example, that while less than a quarter of the municipalities have conservation plans, 40% are routinely spending money on on-going conservation efforts. What criteria are used in determining what to conserve, when? What criteria are used for determining which conservation steps to apply to individual items? Of equal concern, only 11% of the survey respondents had long range preservation plans.
The lack of a uniform standard for assessing record conditions was made clear by survey responses. Onsite visits to some municipal offices suggest that survey characterizations of conditions were more idiosyncratic than systematic. Even awareness of whether an office was on a flood plain varied. For example, among those who responded that their office was not on a flood plain was one office that is within a few dozen feet of a river and another which actually suffered some flood damage during 1998.
Without regular training sessions on preservation and conservation practices, it is unclear how municipalities can create plans which best meet their specific needs. During 1997-98 the Vermont Historical Records Advisory Board (VHRAB) provided small on-site survey grants through which municipalities could work with a professional archivist to develop preservation plans. VHRAB's program, though currently without funding, may be a useful model for providing direct, in-office support for improving records conditions, in addition to the traditional workshops and seminars (for more on the VHRAB program contact the State Archives).
1. The preservation surcharge should be maintained.
Given the wide support for the surcharge among municipal clerks and the need for preservation and conservation funding, the surcharge should be maintained.
The General Assembly may wish to take testimony from clerks, and state and private entities which routinely have instruments recorded in municipal offices, on whether the preservation surcharge should be made uniform to end current confusion and the costs of returning one dollar overpayments.
2. The Secretary of State should continue to monitor the implementation of the surcharge in order to develop baseline information for determining its effectiveness.
As the findings indicate, it is still too soon to determine the effectiveness of the surcharge, while the current lack of common understandings, long range plans, etc skew survey results. Further information gathering and training is needed.
One area that needs to be monitored is the relative amounts raised for preservation among the municipalities. If municipalities with low recording rates, but a high need for preservation and conservation, are not adequately helped by the surcharge, other methods of assistance should be discussed.
3. The State Archives and the Public Records Division of Buildings and General Services should work with the Vermont Municipal Clerks' and Treasurers' Association to define what is allowable under the requirement that the surcharge be applied to "restoration, conservation and preservation".
4. The State Archives and the Public Records Division of Buildings and General Services should work with the Vermont Municipal Clerks' and Treasurers' Association to identify ways to provide sustained and progressive educational opportunities on preservation, conservation, and long range planning.
Possible partners in this effort include the Vermont Historical Records Advisory Board, the Extension Service, the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, and the Vermont Museum and Gallery Alliance's collections care program. Funding sources should be explored as well as whether preservation workshops can be self-supporting and linked to the clerks' educational accreditation program. The State Archives currently has some funding for workshops and can seek additional funding through matches with organizations such as the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.
5. If the Vermont Municipal Clerks' and Treasurers' Association adopts a certification program for record keeping in municipal offices, preservation and conservation should be included as part of the certification.
The Study Committee on the Computerization of Land Records recommended creation, and funding, of a commission to modernize the management of Vermont's land records. In addition it recommended that the proposed commission provide tools through which the Vermont Municipal Clerks' and Treasurers' Association could certify the record keeping of municipal offices. If this recommendation is adopted it makes sense to include preservation and conservation as part of the certification process. This is particularly important given the need to apply preservation decisions to electronic records at the time systems are being designed and implemented.
6. New information technologies, which can reduce the handling of physical records, should be explored as a way to conserve records.
Since use is a major cause of record deterioration, new information technologies, such as scanning, should be explored as a way to conserve the paper records (as well as enhance access). Such explorations, however, should proceed cautiously until there is a better understanding of the long term costs, risk management, and accessibility considerations of preserving electronic records mandated for permanent retention. Connecticut and other states provide models for use of scanning while preserving hard copies (paper or microfilm) until sufficient baseline information on long terms costs and risks can be developed.
Since municipalities are increasingly using computers to index records, compile minutes and grandlists and for other record keeping purposes, it is important that preservation and conservation programs and planning address the special needs of preserving electronic records.
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