MAHONING COUNTY Courthouse cleans house with computer imaging

Keeping documents on computers instead of in filing cabinets will free up space
YOUNGSTOWN -- Technology could not have come to the Mahoning County Courthouse at a better time for Recorder Ron Gerberry.
"We were in trouble," said Gerberry, pointing to a cubbyhole in his office's storage shelves. "We've got enough space left for about three more months. That's it."
Mounting problem: Storage space has been an issue at the courthouse for years. With each passing year, more and more boxes and binders full of legal documents have piled up in hallways and on shelves.
But officials are moving toward a document imaging system that will eliminate the need to keep actual documents on hand and stem the tide of paper that's flooded the building for generations.
The recorder's office is the first to install imaging equipment, starting its use last week.
In the basement storage area of his offices there are 5,118 bound volumes of deeds, mortgages and other property records dating to the county's infancy. Each book contains about 350 pages.
Earlier attempt: Conversion to computerized indexing in 1985 helped some because documents could be reduced to standard-size paper and kept in smaller books, which require less space on the shelves.
But with imaging, documents are scanned into a computer and stored there. The originals are mailed back to their owner and the county's copy is kept in the computer. Backup copies are kept on microfilm in a vault at the South Side Annex on Market Street.
"One of the best things about this is that there's no more paper," Gerberry said. "We have eliminated the space problem in this office."
Best way: James Fortunato, purchasing director, said imaging is the way to go for all county offices required to store legal documents.
"We know that's the direction we have to take for economy's sake," Fortunato said.
The clerk of courts office is the next one scheduled to receive imaging equipment. It's also one of the major contributors to the space shortage because of the wide range of documents it is required to keep for public inspection.
Filing cabinets and boxes of court files line the second-floor hallway in the courthouse because there is nowhere else to put them.
Kathi McNabb Welsh, chief deputy, said the clerk's office met with a consultant about which imaging system to buy. Within a month, officials should know how much the system will cost and can approach county commissioners to appropriate the money, she said.
If all goes well, a system could be in place by the end of the year.
Like the recorder's office, an imaging system would help ease the clerk's space crunch by eliminating the need to keep bound journals of all documents filed there, Welsh said.
"Our computer, in essence, becomes our journal," she said.
Costly venture: While imaging will do away with the need to create paper volumes, it won't do anything to eliminate the ones already there, Gerberry said.
It would cost about $180,000 just to go back to 1985, he said. Going back through all the documents would take too much time and money.
"You're looking at millions of documents," Gerberry said. "It would just be too expensive."
He does intend to scan back to Jan. 1 of this year, so there is a "clean starting point" for imaged documents.
Welsh and Gerberry said an added benefit of imaging is it will be easier to make records available to the public over the Internet. Gerberry said that could happen in his office within three months.
"Someone could sit at home and get a copy of their deed if they need to," he said. Not all of his records will be available that way, though, since Ohio law requires some documents to be certified and must be copied at the courthouse.

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