One of county government’s most important purposes lies in its role as custodian of land records. The offices of the county assessor, auditor, recorder and treasurer are distinct but closely related. Keeping track of property ownership and property values is by no means all these offices do, but it is a big part of what they do.
As computers have taken over, their effects can be seen even in the staid, stable and very conservative departments of county land records’ management. The latest sign of these changes is the complete digitization of more than 150 years of records in the office of the county recorder.
Dallas County Recorder Chad Airhart launched the new cloud-based software system, called the Cott Systems Resolution 3, early in 2016, and the page-by-page scanning of hundreds of books and the transfer to online-accessible, cloud-stored records is now complete.
In order to celebrate the achievement of this milestone, Airhart’s office will host a public open house Tuesday, Oct. 17 from 1:30-3:30 p.m., offering citizens a chance to see the new Cott Systems software in action and learn how to access online real estate records dating back to 1850.
“Digitizing 150-plus years of records has been a multi-year project,” Airhart said, “and we are proud to unveil it to the citizens of Dallas County.”
The Dallas County Recorder’s office processes more than 25,000 documents a year. The office issues thousands of vital records — births, marriages and deaths — as well as registering snowmobiles, boats and ATVs for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and serving as a passport acceptance facility for the U.S. State Department.
“We have advanced the office technologically with the addition of software from Cott Systems,” Airhart said, “and this has helped us to improve our processes to do more with the same amount of staff, efficiently accommodating the needs of one of the fastest growing counties in America.”
Airhart said he “had been looking for a more efficient and effective way to manage our records and improve service for our constituents, and this system does just that.” At the time of the switch in Dallas County, 13 other counties in Iowa were using Cott Systems software.
“With that many other counties utilizing this software, including Polk, Linn, Johnson and Dubuque, it was an easy decision to switch,” he said, “knowing Cott could provide us the services we need as Iowa’s fastest growing county.”
The software switch is also a boon to local abstract and title companies that work extensively with Dallas County land records, Airhart said.
They “were thrilled when they learned we were switching to Cott,” he said, “because they were already familiar with the system from working in neighboring Polk County. But it’s not just the local abstractor and lawyer who needs access to our records. As the fastest growing county in Iowa and one of the fastest growing in America, we are working with buyers and sellers, lawyers and real estate professionals from all across America. Now searchers can search our records from anywhere in America, 24 hours a day, and the index and images are always available and posted immediately as they are recorded.”
Service fees paid in the Recorder’s office often produce a revenue surplus, and Airhart was able to cover the cost of the Cott Systems conversion from within his office’s budget.
“All of this has been accomplished while the Recorder’s office ran a fund balance of $418,000 in fiscal year 2017,” Airhart said. “This essentially means that the Recorder’s office brought in $418,000 more in fees for services than they spent on staff, interdepartmental support staff and all other expenses. The fund balance reverts to the general fund and supports the entire county, lessening the burden on the taxpayer.”
In order to get them skilled up in the use of the new software, Cott Systems technicians conducted a two-week training period for the Recorder and his staff. Airhart and the Cott team then trained in turn the local abstract and title companies as well as workers in other Dallas County government departments who work closely with the Recorder’s office, particularly the offices of Dallas County Treasurer Mitch Hambleton, Dallas County Auditor Julia Helm and Dallas County Assessor Steve Helm.
Hambleton said he “was impressed with the functionality of the new system.” The Cott System software “really brought the Recorder’s office into the 21st century,” he said.
Kimberly Tarpey, a Cott Systems account executive, worked closely with Airhart for two years on the conversion of the Recorder’s office to the cloud. Cott Systems is a privately owned software and service company that has served local government offices with records management solutions for more than 125 years.
“Whether a county is home to a major metropolitan area or serving small rural towns, whether growing rapidly or declining in size, the need for recording and protecting real estate records remains an important service for the public and is crucial for the transacting of real estate,” Tarpey said. “Cott Systems allows Dallas County to do just that as well as be more efficient and to process documents faster.”
A further benefit of the digitization of the county records is disaster preparedness. The county now has a complete digital library of all of its records, so in the event of a disaster in which physical records are destroyed, there will be continuity of service in the Recorder’s office and no interruption due to record loss.
“With the completion of this project, searching records in Dallas County just got a whole lot easier,” Airhart said. “In the past, to search for recorded documents you had to drive to Adel and come into the Recorder’s office. This could be a laborious effort, searching through old, heavy record books. With Cott Systems, the public can access millions of recorded public records 24/7 from anywhere with an internet connection.”
Branko Hrnjak, a Cott Systems scanning specialist from Columbus, Ohio, spent the spring of 2017 scanning the more than 300 record books in the Dallas County Recorder’s office, along with about 20 large plat books. Hrnjak was assisted by Cott scanner technician Nick Pelar.
With the books now scanned, they will eventually be moved to the county archives, which will free up space in the Recorder’s courthouse office. Even with the books still on the shelves, the Recorder’s office will accommodate Tuesday’s open house, when Airhart and the Cott Systems staff will be on hand to demonstrate how to use the public search website and train those in attendance on how the search page works. To RSVP, please contact the Dallas County Recorder’s office at 515-993-5804.