Since Smith County Clerk Karen Phillips took office in 2011, she has experienced two flooding events in the basement of the County Clerk’s office.
One of those happened in March and affected the basement in the Smith County Courthouse Annex building. Books containing some of the county’s most historical records were unavailable to the public for a short time.
In Texas, the County Clerk is the records custodian for the county courts, including the Commissioners Court. Phillips issues marriage licenses; ensures non-criminal public records, such as birth and death certificates are securely maintained, and is responsible to preserve and protect the records in her custody.
Now, Phillips is advocating that Smith County spend about $6 million from a local fund to preserve the books containing such records and place them in a disaster-safe binder that was designed to protect records after Hurricane Katrina.
This $6 million is money already set aside in a state-mandated preservation fund for this purpose. The state requires a portion of fees paid in the filing of certain court records and other documents such as birth records, marriage licenses, civil and real property records to be set aside for records preservation.
On Tuesday, the Smith County Commissioners Court heard a presentation from Chris Marotti, the national sales support manager for Dallas-based Kofile Inc. He proposed providing the preservation services under a 12-month contract, and giving the county a 20 percent discount off the original price of $7.5 million, if a contract is signed by the end of July.
Marotti said the records being housed in the Cotton Belt Building on Front Street and Smith County Courthouse Annex on Ferguson Street amount to 2,414 volumes; 1,571,437 pages; and 75,000 pounds. The records span from 1846 to 1972. After that time, records were kept in other formats, such as microfilm, then in 1975 they began being digitized.
“Mostly, it contains real property information, deeds, mortgages, deeds of trust, mechanics’ liens, as well as military discharge records and other vital records that are important to the court,” Marotti said. “That’s the history of your county.”
As an example of the work to be done, Marotti pointed to a binder in his PowerPoint presentation of a deteriorating page. He said Scotch tape on it had eaten the book, so the technologist’s hand could be seen through the document.
“We remove that lamination,” he said. “We chemically stabilize the paper to make it last. Once it’s been stabilized, we go back in, fix the document up, (use) surface cleaner, amend it, and then we reformat it in a polyester envelope into a new binder.”
The binder he is recommending is stainless steel and designed to withstand disasters. He said the technology was developed after Hurricane Katrina, when many records were destroyed not because of the original flooding, but because the records could not handle ongoing humidity.
“Most counties that engage in this type of work prefer the disaster-safe binder just because, as we speak, there’s a hurricane off the coast,” he said. “Fires, floods are very common. I don’t think there’s a courthouse in Texas or the United States that hasn’t flooded multiple times.”
After the presentation, County Judge Nathaniel Moran said he did not want to be pressured into signing a contract by the end of July. However, he said he intends to revisit the issue.
“It’s a little bit unusual to take up and approve a contract before we’ve budgeted for it,” Moran said. "The budget process is ongoing. Public hearings are scheduled in August, and the Commissioners Court will set the budget and tax rate Aug. 27.”
“I’ll tell the court that my intent is to go ahead and propose that money to have that for the next fiscal year, but the timing of it was a little bit concerning for me,” Moran said.
A contract with Kofile Technologies for data preservation is on the agenda for the July 23 Commissioners Court meeting.
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