Counties are supporting e-storage of documents

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Kate Barkman, director of the county Department of Court Records, was giving an informational presentation to Allegheny County Council members last week when she mentioned a quirk of Pennsylvania law.

Although her office scans and saves electronically every piece of paper received, state law requires that court records be stored and preserved either on paper or using a format such as microfilm.

It's a requirement that's costly and requires a great deal of storage space, Ms. Barkman said.

But there's a possible solution pending in Harrisburg, in the form of a bill that would modernize the storage and preservation of court records by allowing counties to store those records not just in paper, microfilm and microfiche format, but also with optical imaging technology, such as when files are scanned and stored electronically. William McKain, the county manager, described the bill as one of his top legislative priorities in Harrisburg.

Last week, members of county council added their support.

Michael Finnerty, a Democrat from Scott who is chair of the budget and finance committee, said he expected the topic of showing support to come up at the next county council meeting. He said he'd also ask people to write letters to their state senators expressing support.

For now, the bill isn't moving.

A year ago, Senate Bill 372 was unanimously approved by the Judiciary Committee, but Erik Arneson, communications and policy director for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, said that currently there is no planned time frame for the bill's consideration.

State Sen. Matt Smith, D-Mt. Lebanon, who introduced the measure, said he plans to bring it up with state Senate leadership.

"I'm very hopeful," he said. "We have a significant amount of time in session left."

Mr. Smith, who introduced the bill in January 2013, said Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald brought the topic to his attention, saying the use of electronically stored records was a way to make documents more accessible to the public and move away from an "old, antiquated way" of preserving records.

"It doesn't require [counties] to make this change, but it just gives them the option," Mr. Smith said, describing it as a way of preserving records that is also more cost-effective and efficient.

Even without the potential backing of Allegheny County Council, the legislation has plenty of support around the state and on both sides of the political aisle, Mr. Smith said.

Douglas Hill, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, said his organization has asked Senate leadership to move the bill forward.

"In the full spectrum of things that counties do, we are always looking for ways where we can provide better service and do it more efficiently and at a lower cost to the taxpayer," he said.

The records modernization initiative is a prime example, he said, saying that Pennsylvania's counties must contend with storage costs and logistics.

Allegheny County currently stores records in the county courthouse and a storage facility on the North Side, in Bradys Bend Underground Storage in East Brady, Clarion County, and through Iron Mountain Inc., a storage company, according to a county spokeswoman.

The county has estimated that allowing the use of electronic storage could result in yearly savings of $230,000 in storage costs.

The question of how best to store records is one that all 67 counties in Pennsylvania must answer, said David Haury, state archivist for the Pennsylvania History and Museum Commission, which advises counties on records retention. Mr. Haury said he was consulted on drafting the language for a similar records retention bill proposed a few years ago.

Microfilm is "still the best, and in many ways, it's still the least expensive way to store large quantities of paper records," he said.

But it's clear that some counties are ready to move beyond microfilm.

A year ago, the three commissioners for Montgomery County, near Philadelphia, wrote a letter to state Sen. Stewart J. Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, chair of the Judiciary Committee and a co-sponsor of Mr. Smith's bill.

The commissioners said they "know first-hand how antiquated the rules covering the storage of judicial records are in the Commonwealth," writing that the county spends more than $75,000 a year in microfilm-related activities and calling for passage of a bill allowing them to use more modern technology.

Ann Thornburg Weiss, Montgomery County clerk of courts, said she supports the bill.

Every year, she said, "hundreds and hundreds" of boxes of papers are sent from the county's courthouse to its archives building. If people ask to see documents, and those documents are stored on microfilm, often it is a format that is difficult for them to use, she said.

"To most people these days, it's Stone Age," she said.


Kaitlynn Riely: kriely@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1707.

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