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Schuyler provides a 'model' for records

WATKINS GLEN–A few years ago, the former Watkins Glen School District bus garage had no heat, no air conditioning and bullet-riddled windows.
Today, after a $400,000 investment to convert it to a shared records management center for Schuyler County and several other municipalities, Kathy Walruth describes it as “heaven.”
The 6,865-square-foot building that faces Watkins Glen Elementary School now holds more than 4,500 cubic feet of records from the county, the village of Watkins Glen and the school district.
Soon the towns of Hector and Dix are expected to send their records there for storage, as will Cornell Cooperative Extension and the Schuyler County Soil and Water Conservation District.
Walruth, the facility’s records management director, is right at home among the boxes and drawers and cabinets of government documents.
“I have a passion for history,” she said.
County Administrator Tim O’Hearn said the temperature- and humidity-controlled building provides superior conditions to those under which some of the records were formerly stored.
“Some of the towns’ records were in attics, under tables and in people’s houses,” O’Hearn said. “Some county records were in basements and under water pipes.”
Opened in June 2008, the Shared Records Management Facility is a cross between a library and a warehouse.
Some of its treasures include the hand-written minutes of meetings in 1854 and 1855 at which Schuyler County was formed. The hand-written results of the first census of the county in 1855 are also on file.
Before the new records center opened, Walruth worked 10 years as the county’s records officer, stuffed into a 1,500-square-foot space that was overflowing with documents.
“I went from purgatory to heaven,” she said.
Despite the $400,000 investment, O’Hearn said the new facility has helped the county avoid significant costs. A $100,000 state grant helped pay for the renovation, and space in other buildings formerly used for county records is now being rented to paying tenants.
“A lot of this was cost avoidance,” O’Hearn said.
A 2004 study of county office space indicated it would cost $600,000 to build an adequate facility to hold county records alone.
One of the costs avoided was that of $100,000 worth of high-end shelving, which a Cornell University library was about to discard. O’Hearn said the county’s only cost was transporting and reassembling the shelves.
Walruth said the state determines which records towns, villages, counties and school districts must keep and how long they must keep them.
Payroll records, for example, must be stored for 55 years.
The facility is in no danger of running out of the space for several reasons, Walruth said. First, it has a capacity of 12,000 cubic feet, only about one-third of which is being used. There’s also an aggressive microfilming program that saves space. Each week, about 20 cubic feet of documents are shredded.
So far, the center has no digital records. Walruth said it’s not economical to scan paper documents and burn them onto CDs.
“I don’t trust a CD past four or five years,” she said. “Microfilm is much more indestructible.”
She unravels a roll of microfilm and wads it up like a piece of paper. When she lets go, it returns to its original shape.
The microfilm collection, which totals more than 1,000 rolls, is protected up to 1,200 degrees in case of fire. It contains such information as tax rolls and marriage, birth and death records.
“We do hope to migrate to a more digital system,” O’Hearn said.
Time cards are expected to be the center’s first digital data.
The records center is locked 24 hours a day and is not open to the public. Requests for records under the state’s Freedom of Information Law must go to the municipalities involved, which obtain the records from the center.
Walruth said keeping track of the center’s voluminous collection is simple.
“I put it away, I know where it is,” she said.
Assigning each municipality its own section of the building and using color-coded boxes help keep the records readily accessible.
Walruth and a part-time assistant staff the records facility, which has a $51,000 annual budget.
O’Hearn said the center has more clients than any similar facility in the state.
“It is being used as a model success story for state-backed shared services programs,” he said.

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