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July Members of the Northampton County Council Glenn


									July 16, 2002

Members of the Northampton County Council
Glenn F. Reibman, County Executive
County of Northampton, Pennsylvania

At the request of County Council, via Resolution Number 30-02, we worked with the
Northampton County Administration and the Curtis Group in conducting a performance
audit of the Civil Division (Prothonotary), Department of Court Services and the
Recorder of Deeds Division, Department of Fiscal Affairs. The specific objectives of our
work were determined after meeting with the Administration and the Curtis Group; they
are listed below.

    1. Review the pertinent points of Pennsylvania Land Title Association vs. City of
       Philadelphia and determine their applicability in Northampton County.

    2. Review compliance with applicable Federal and State regulations regarding
       timely recording of documents, accurate indexing of documents and other
       related issues.

    3. Survey other counties to determine the extent of their backlogs, if any, and the
       ratio of document filings to staff.

    4. Review the concerns that title searchers have addressed to the Director of
       Court Services and his responses to these concerns.

    5. Compare what is currently indexed in the Recorder of Deeds Division to what is
       required by law.

    6. Provide information and assistance to the Curtis Group as requested.

A significant portion of our audit involved researching laws pertaining to the Recorder of
Deeds and the Civil Division, and interpreting those laws as they apply to Northampton
County. For that we relied on our Solicitor David J. Ceraul, Esquire, to provide us with
legal advice.

The audit was conducted in accordance with Government Auditing Standards issued by
the Comptroller General of the United States.

Background: This lawsuit refers to a 1997 court case brought by the Pennsylvania
Land Title Association vs. the City of Philadelphia. The lawsuit was brought in part
because of the large backlog of documents in the City of Philadelphia’s Recorder of
Deeds Office that were not recorded or indexed.

Results: Attorney Ceraul determined that “most, if not all, of the issues raised in the
City of Philadelphia case deal with the provisions of 16 P.S. Section 9731.” These are
the same statutes that were the basis for the City of Philadelphia court case.

Based on our review we identified four areas where the Northampton County Recorder
of Deeds is in violation of the law. (See section 2A for details) These violations could
be the basis for a legal challenge.


Background: We obtained the statutory requirements for the Recorder of Deeds
Division from Attorney Ceraul. He also provided us with an opinion that the statute, by
including the term “brought into his office to be recorded”, appears to address all such
documents, whether they are hand-delivered, couriered, mailed, or over-nighted. This
is especially important because documents received over the counter are handled
differently than those received by other means.

The status of County compliance was determined by interview with Ann Achatz,
Recorder of Deeds on 6/19/02.

Results: Based on the results of our testing, there are two sections of the law where
the Recorder of Deeds is not in compliance, resulting in four violations. All four
violations are the result of backlogs in the office.

    16 P.S. Section 9731: The Recorder of Deeds is required to “immediately make an
    entry of every deed or writing brought into his office to be recorded, mentioning
    therein the date, the parties and the place where the lands, tenements or
    hereditaments, granted or conveyed by the said deed or writing are situate, dating
    the same entry on the day in which such deed or writing was brought into his office,
    and shall record all such deeds and writings in regular succession, according to
    their priority of time in being brought into said office…”.

    •    The Recorder of Deeds has a backlog of documents (satisfaction pieces)
         received through the mail that have not been recorded.

    •    Documents not received over the counter are not date stamped the day
         they are received.

    •    Satisfaction pieces received over the counter are recorded the same day,
         however, satisfaction pieces received by mail go back several months
         and remain in file cabinets. These documents are not recorded in regular

    16 P.S. Section 9852: The Recorder of Deeds is required to keep separate
    indexes for the grantors and separate indexes for grantees. Also, it is the duty of
    the Recorder to index in its appropriate place and manner every deed and
    mortgage recorded in his office, at the time the same is recorded.

    •    Mortgages are recorded on the day they are received but are only
         indexed through May 17, 2002.


Background: We obtained the statutory requirements for the Civil Division from
Attorney Ceraul. Many of those requirements dealt with maintaining specific types of
indexes or dockets. While many of these requirements may have been practical when
records were maintained manually, they are not practical with automated systems.

The Civil Division computer system, FACTS, allows for a search of the entire civil
database of judgments, claims, liens, etc., using the civil search function. FACTS
contains information dating back to December 15, 1999, when data was converted from
the mainframe to FACTS. Cases that were still open on the mainframe at the time of
the conversion were transferred to FACTS. Data from closed cases was placed on
ALVA CD-ROM for easy retrieval.

The status of County compliance was determined by interview with Holly Ruggiero,
Clerk of Courts/Prothonotary on 6/19/02.

Results: State law requires the Prothonotary to maintain separate indexes or dockets
by secured transactions, petitions for specific performance, mechanic’s liens, locality,
municipal tax liens, State Department of Revenue liens and personal property tax liens.
Since this information is accessible by searching the civil index, it is the opinion of
Attorney Ceraul that the County is complying with the spirit of the law even though they
do not maintain separate indexes or dockets.

Based on the results of our research and interviews, there is one section of the law
where the Prothonotary is not in compliance, resulting in two violations.

    42 Pa. C.S.A. Section 2704: The Prothonotary is responsible for the accurate and
    timely creation, maintenance, and certification of the record of the matters pending
    before, or determined by, the Court of Common Pleas.

    •    Court Minutes are not recorded in FACTS. Court Minutes may include
         condemnations of land, which are important to title searchers.
         Judgements, which were backlogged at the start of our audit, have since
         been brought up-to-date.

    •    Court Minutes are not properly secured. As Court Minutes are received
         in the office, they are copied, with the original going in the file room and
         the copy being placed on the windowsill in Civil. If any of the copies
         would be lost, the minutes would not be entered into FACTS because the
         copies are used as input documents.


Background: In order to determine whether the staff size in the Recorder of Deeds is
adequate, we surveyed Recorders in other Pa. counties. Unfortunately, after some
counties responded, a Recorder from another county sent an e-mail to the other
Recorders in the State, asking them not to cooperate with our survey. Because
Recorders in other counties are elected officials, they were afraid that the information
could be used against them in an election.

Results: There were four counties that participated in our survey, three 3rd Class
Counties and one 5th Class County. Counties A and C who responded use the same
Landex software as Northampton County. The results are shown below.

                    Class                                 Documents
   County          County    Number of Employees           Recorded           Backlog
                            12 FT plus 1 for                               Yes, mailed-in
Northampton          3rd    microfilming                    54,583          sats. back to
                            3 PT                                              1/28/02.
                            2 summer help
County A             3rd    20 FT at main office            50,949               No
                            1 FT at satellite office
                            17 FT
County B             3rd    6 PT                            102,622              No
                            3 Temp
                            12 FT                                         Yes, all types of
County C             3rd    2 summer help                   84,948        documents back
                            Staff works voluntary OT                        to 4/26/02.
                            5 FT
County D             5th    1 PT volunteer                  25,630               No
                            1 Floater
                            1 Intern

For another comparison, the number of employees vs. the number of documents
recorded was scheduled for the Recorder of Deeds from 1993 to 2001. As can be seen
from the chart, the number of documents recorded can vary greatly from year to year,
and the number of employees has gone from 10 in 1993 to 12 in 2001.

                            # Documents
            Year              Recorded             # Employees
            1993               53,102                  10
            1994               52,441                  10
            1995               39,537                  10
            1996               42,875                  10
            1997               44,106                  10
            1998               53,716                  10
            1999               55,373                  11
            2000               45,302                  12
            2001               54,583                  12


Background: In order to determine whether the staff size in the Civil Division is
adequate, we surveyed Prothonotaries in other Pa. Counties. After some counties did
not return our call, Holly Ruggiero, Clerk of Courts/Prothonotary made some telephone
calls. One county responded to our request and one responded to Ms. Ruggiero’s

Results: There were two 3rd Class counties that participated in our survey. The types
of cases included civil, protection from abuse, and asbestos. There are two notable
differences between Northampton County and the other two counties. First,
Northampton County has five full-time employees assigned to Sheriff’s sale work,
whereas in the other counties, this is handled within the Sheriff’s Department. Second,
during civil court week, Northampton County sends seven clerks to court, whereas the
other counties do not use employees of the Civil Division. The results are shown below.

                            Class            Number of           2001 Cases
          County           County            Employees              Filed
                                       16 FT
      Northampton            3rd       2 PT                        11,222
                                       5 FT (Sheriff)
                                       1 volunteer (Sheriff)
      County A               3rd       21 FT                       13,059
                                       4 PT
      County B               3rd       15 FT                       13,000


Background: Over a period of several months, title searchers communicated their
concerns with the Civil Division software (FACTS ) to the Director of Court Services,
Gerald Seyfried. Although the performance of FACTS was not within the scope of this
audit, we were asked by the Administration to look at concerns expressed by the title
searchers and the responses to those concerns.

Results: Through a series of memos, over 70 concerns were relayed to Mr. Seyfried.
Rather than look at the concerns individually, we attended two meetings where the
concerns were discussed. In the first meeting held in the Civil Division, Mr. Seyfried
and Ms. Ruggiero met with the searchers and reviewed their concerns. The next
meeting was a demo of FACTS by personnel of Tiburon, followed by a question and
answer period.

It appears from the meetings that there were some problems with FACTS that may
have resulted in inaccurate searches. These problems were reported to Tiburon and
were corrected. A problem that still exists pertains to the recording of judgments.
When judgments are received in Civil, they are date and time stamped. When they are
entered into FACTS, there is one field for “date”, so the date that the document was
received is entered. Therefore, a document received in April but not entered until May
would have an April date. This information is misleading to someone performing a

search. Tiburon is looking into the possibility of adding another field for the date that a
document is entered.

Overall, the searchers did have some legitimate complaints that were addressed where
possible. Some of the concerns appear to be the complexities with learning a new
system and a system that is not as user friendly as the prior system. Mr. Seyfried, Ms.
Ruggiero and Ms. Smith, Deputy Director of Court Administration have been working
with the searchers to address their concerns. A set of instructions for using FACTS has
been placed at each public PC in Civil. Additional meetings will be held with the
searchers and all concerns will be reviewed and ranked according to priority and cost.
A better working relationship between the parties should result in a system that better
serves all parties.


Background: A concern of the Administration was that more information was being
indexed in the Deeds Office than was required. They were concerned that the time
spent entering this additional information may be related to the backlog of unrecorded

Results: The following chart presents a comparison between the information that is
recorded/indexed and that which is required to be indexed. It should also be noted that
the majority of the required information is entered when the document is recorded. At
that time the document is scanned and an image of the document is available on the
public computers in Deeds. After scanning, the additional information is indexed.

                                                            Required to be
                Information Recorded/Indexed                   Indexed
        Type of document (deed, mortgage, etc)                    X
        Date of recording                                         X
        Date of instrument                                        X
        All grantees and grantors                                 X
        Location of property (map, block, lot)                    X
        Reference to related documents

The information that is recorded/indexed, which is not required, is minimal. The
information is important to anyone researching documents and does not appear to
require a great deal of time to enter.


Throughout the audit we met with members of the Curtis Group and the Department of
Human Resources to share information. We also provided them with sections of Policy
and Procedure Manuals that we prepared for the Civil Division and Recorder of Deeds.

We acknowledge the cooperation and assistance we received from the Recorder of
Deeds, Civil Division, counties that participated in our survey and various other
individuals. Their help was essential to the performance of this audit.

Very truly yours,

John T. Schimmel, PA                                     Paul L. Albert, CIA
County Controller                                        Lead Auditor


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