In the garage of Ingham County’s Annex Building in Mason, a rack of files stood, gathering dust, neglected and forgotten. They contained thousands of decades old Circuit Court records that the county is required to maintain.
The haphazard storage was an accident waiting to happen … and it did. At the end of January 2014, a water pipe along the ceiling froze and burst in the frigid temperatures. It flooded the garage with approximately 4 inches of water, damaging records and costing the county taxpayers $16,904 to restore the documents.
Those damaged files are no longer kept in the garage. Document restoration company DFD has repaired the damaged documents. They’ve been returned to a room in the Annex with no temperature controls and where they are exposed to sunlight.
Shortly after taking office in 2013, Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum started reviewing how the county’s court and vital records were being stored and maintained. Proper storage of Circuit Court records had been neglected by the previous clerk, Mike Bryanton, she said, adding that storage in the garage was particularly inappropriate.
“When the court administrator and I saw where the files were being kept, we immediately took action to address the problem,” Byrum said. She fired off emails and held meetings with facilities director Rick Terrill and his supervisor, Administrator/ControllerTim Dolehanty. She discussed her ongoing concerns for months with county commissioners and top management at the county.
“This is what I was afraid of,” she emailed Dolehanty on Jan. 27, 2014 when she received news of the water logged files.
“That pipe break sped up the response from the controller and facilities director,” Byrum said.
In September 2014, the Board of Commissioners authorized just under $75,000 for a space utilization study to be conducted by DLZ Michigan, Inc. a Lansing based business. A draft of the study was sent to top county staff in August. Nothing has been done with the report and it has not been shared with county commissioners.
Byrum saw the draft document in mid-November, before a meeting with Dolehanty and Terrill. She and her staff spent many hours with the consultants exploring the storage issues and reviewing where and how files are currently stored. But she said the draft study is inadequate because it does not address the storage concerns properly or provide recommendations to address the storage issue.
Kara Hope, a Democratic commissioner representing Delhi Township and incoming chairwoman of the board of commissioners, said she is unclear why county officials had not brought the space utilization study forward yet but is “looking forward” to seeing it.
“No one has explained why it’s been so long” for commissioners to receive the study, she said.
Dolehanty did not respond to emails and phone calls for this story. Neither did Brian McGrain, the outgoing Commission chairman.
While commissioners struggle to address the pressing storage needs of both Circuit Court and county clerk vital records, they have taken some pressure off by authorizing Byrum to contract with a Madison Heights company to store and retrieve the Circuit Court files.
Graphic Sciences Inc. will provide 5,677 linear feet for files in a secure, climate controlled location. Taxpayers are on the hook for $39,197 for moving and storing the files as well as paying Graphic Sciences’ staff to retrieve court documents as requested. Commissioners also approved an additional $7,670 to hire a part-time, temporary employees to assist in purging the files —- making sure the files contain only those documents required by court rule — before moving them off site. Byrum said the process of preparing the files for transport and storage has begun.
She is reviewing whether vital records might also need to be moved to the location. “It doesn’t sound good to say we are storing our files in Sterling Heights or wherever,” Byrum said. “But on the other hand, building a new building is always expensive.”
She acknowledged the county has significant facilities needs and floated the idea that if — and she emphasized this was only a hypothetical idea — a decision was made to build a new Circuit Court building, “that may be an opportunity to make that part of the package.”
The storage problem
Ingham County has to maintain hard copies of vital records — such as marriage licenses, birth and death records, and concealed carry permit applications — as well as tens of thousands of files that the Circuit Court is required to maintain. County officials are unable to give an exact count on the number of files being retained; they can only put the numbers in the hundreds of thousands of pages. Those files are spread out through the county’s buildings, in various storage areas. And each set of documents has specific regulations and rules attached to how long they must be maintained and how they must be maintained. Key among them is limited access to authorized staff and officials only. Technically that requires separate, climate controlled and controlledaccess facilities.