New recorder tackling backlog

LISBON – The new Columbiana County recorder has brought back a laid-off worker and added another employee to help process a growing backlog of oil and gas leases dating back to last summer.

“After being here just a little over a month, it has become glaringly obvious to me we are severely understaffed,” said Recorder Theresa Bosel, who took office in early January following her election to the job last November.

Bosel rehired Matt Plegge, who was laid off last September by her predecessor to save money. “Now that we’ve gotten Matt back we’re no longer hemorrhaging … but we are not making up any ground either,” she said.

To help get at the lease backlog, Bosel hired Amy Roessler of Lisbon, bringing her staff to five, which she hopes will provide enough manpower to address the ongoing problem created by the leasing frenzy underway in the county since the shale boom began in 2010.

“Before the onslaught of gas and oil (leases) started, we should have been staffed with 4-5 people. That would have been adequate. So it is only reasonable we would need more staff to take on the increase in documents,” she said.

County commissioners and former recorder Craig Brown tooks steps last year designed to speed up the lease research-and-recording process, but Bosel said her staff told her the backlog began to grow again when Plegge was laid off.

Bosel said there are leases dating back to June that need scanned into the computer system, and another four-week backlog on scanned leases needing added to office’s property index.

Commissioners appropriated Bosel $265,000, which is more than Brown was originally appropriated but less than he ended up spending. She has a two-prong plan for coming up with the extra money to pay for bringing back Plegge and hiring Roessler.

First, Bosel canceled a service contract she deemed a “luxury” and renegotiated several others, the savings from which is expected to total perhaps $800 or more per month.

The so-called “luxury” software contract was one that allows lease searchers to access the property index online, which was supposed to alleviate overcrowded conditions at the courthouse. While Bosel acknowledged this service was convenient for people performing property searches, she said “we just cannot afford it right now.”

The recorder’s office is also going to resume charging people $2 per page for copying documents when the staff does the work. The fee for making copies yourself is 25 cents. Bosel indicated the copying fee was waived at some point last year, apparently to mollify property searchers. The copying fee goes into the county general fund, and not the recorder’s budget, however.

Chesapeake Energy, the largest leaseholder in the county, offered to bring in some of its people to help process leases. After considering the offer, Bosel rejected it on the advice of several other county recorders she spoke with. Bosel said they told her the more people who handle property records, the greater the chance the records can be damaged, misplaced or lost. Then there is the liability issue of having non-county employees performing such work.

“This is nothing personally against Chesapeake or any other oil or gas company. It’s just that we need people who understand the integrity of these documents (is) important and that they need scanned the right way,” she said.

Bosel is continuing to talk with Chesapeake about other ways the company can be of assistance. Chesapeake already spent $250,000 digitizing county property records, creating a copy of them in a format that allows the documents to be available online through the recorder’s office website.

To look for other ways to save money, Bosel has invited recorders from several other counties to review her operations and make suggestions. “My goal in the campaign was: What are the best practices, what is going to save us time, money and make us more efficient and productive,” she said.

Meanwhile, Bosel hopes these efforts produce savings and extra revenue needed to retain Plegge and Roessler, with the latter being employed on a temporary basis for up to 90 days before she has to join the union representing office staff.

Bosel said she has faced other challenges since talking office, such as $25,000 in bills that should have been paid in 2012. She said commissioners told her to pay the bills out of her 2013 budget and they would provide her with additional funding later in the year.

Unlike Brown, whose relationship with commissioners could at times be described as contentious, Bosel said the board has been very helpful “with their guidance and patience.”

She said they have no choice but to address the lease backlog because another wave of leases is on the way, as drilling companies begin securing easements to run pipelines across properties to get the shale gas from drill sites to processing/transfer plants.

“Our first priority is to get caught up, and we will,” Bosel said.