Mountain of documents facing new Macon-Bibb government

pramati@macon.comDecember 17, 2013 

Consolidating Macon and Bibb County has shed light on a serious problem facing the new government: records storage.

Documents from the city, county and local law enforcement are contained in 18,184 boxes scattered across several buildings.

Because of state law, governments can’t shred many kinds of records until a certain amount of time has passed and those records have been converted to microfilm or computer files.

But local officials have only lately become aware of how far behind the city and county departments are in scanning those documents and getting rid of the paper. Bibb County officials had to find space to store records after agreeing this year to rent its current storage space to the Middle Georgia Regional Commission to expand the commission offices and house the Macon-Bibb County Office of Workforce Development.

“We realized we had a retention issue almost a year ago,” Bibb County Chief Administrative Officer Steve Layson said.

The county kept most of its records in a facility next to the Regional Commission on Emery Highway but also had to pay for additional storage space elsewhere.

“We realized that some of the city departments were also paying for storage,” Layson said. “A lot of departments were not scanning and microfilming at a pace to even keep up.”

In fact, he said, the county is so far behind getting its records scanned that it would cost $3 million to bring in an outside company for the job.

Commissioners got an idea of the scope of the problem during committee meetings this month when Phyllis Willis, clerk of the magistrate and civil courts, explained the backlog of files in her office.

Willis said the commission made the decision in 1994 to have someone from the commissioners’ office scan the files rather than hire someone in the courts’ office for the job.

“We’ve never done it, so there’s no one to do the scanning,” Willis said.

Willis said it likely would take more than five years to catch up on the backlog of scanning files because both courts generate considerably more paper than other departments and are subject to very specific regulations with shredding files. When the courts first approached the commission in 1994, there already were 300 to 350 boxes of files that needed to be scanned.

“They can’t be destroyed, and we don’t have the scanning equipment now,” Willis said. “We don’t have the space.”

Solutions

With the county spending $57,000 a year for offsite records storage and the city spending another $10,000, officials have been working on ways to address the problem.

The county purchased the old Sears building on Third Street to serve as the future home for the Macon-Bibb County Sheriff’s Office’s investigations bureau. The new government also will use 17,000 square feet in the basement to house all the city and county records. Officials said the space should hold about 32,000 boxes.

Cara Cotton, director of strategic management for the sheriff’s office, said workers eventually will install locked gates in the records storage space to secure sensitive files. Like the courts, law enforcement also has its share of state regulations it must follow concerning records.

“It depends on the case,” she said. “It can get very confusing. A lot of it depends on the status of the case and if there’s pending litigation.”

Files related to ongoing investigations or that contain evidence won’t be stored at the facility, Cotton said. Instead, they either are kept by the investigators or stored at the crime lab.

Currently, the police department will transfer 1,698 boxes to the storage facility, while the sheriff’s office has 1,168 boxes.

As for other city departments, Macon Mayor Robert Reichert, the mayor-elect of the new government, compared it any other move: Use this opportunity of packing things up to try to throw out things for which there is no longer room.

“It’s a good opportunity to fix things and put them where they belong,” he said.

City department heads have been asked to purge what they can in the merger, said Chris Floore, Reichert’s spokesman.

On the county side, Layson said commissioners already have approved $30,000 in the budget for a pilot program designed to address the records needs of juvenile and magistrate courts. Layson said an outside company specializing in records retention and purging will be hired to work on those court documents.

“It’s a short-term answer, but not a long-term one,” Layson said. “We’re attacking it from several different angles. We need to pass an ordinance which has people scan their records (as they get them). We can destroy present records, but we still have a backlog.”

Layson said the government has the scanning equipment but not the personnel to do the work. The way the new government’s computer system is designed, there are back-ups for all scanned documents that will be on servers at City Hall, the Bibb County Courthouse and the Macon-Bibb County Emergency Management Agency.

While the new government is putting plans in place to address future records issues, there’s still the backlog of records that spans decades and will take years to catch up.

“It’s got to be done. It’s one of the major hurdles that has to be dealt with,” Layson said. “We realize we’ve got a mountain to climb. ... Like anything with government, it comes down to funding. We can pay for it now or pay for it later. The longer we wait, the more we’ll pay.”

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.

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