[updated with additional comments]
STONINGTON — The town’s planning department has requested $5,000 in the fiscal 2019-20 budget to begin the process of digitizing about 10,000 paper records that currently reside in file cabinets in the planning offices.
The records go back more than 40 years, Jason Vincent, director of planning for the town, told the Board of Finance at its meeting Wednesday night at the police station.
“Zero dollars have been invested in protecting those records,” he told the board. “And, those records are civil rights documents because they are about property rights and belong to people who have secure permits."
Vincent said it was important for the town to make sure the records are correctly documented so that when people go to trade or acquire property, they’re able to claim all the rights that belong to them.
The records are organized by the applicants owner’s name, not by address, making it extremely difficult to find the correct documents quickly, Vincent said.
“If somebody comes in and says, ‘I need to know what happened with this piece of property,’” it could take us days to find out what happened with that property,” he said. “We should have these things at our fingertips because some of these things are $20 million assets that are existing within our community.”
Vincent said an important role of the planning office is to create confidence in the town’s real estate transactions even before a conveyance takes place, which includes having quick access to the necessary documents.
“We can’t generate new property tax revenue without people having confidence in buying property,” he said. “We can’t generate conveyance tax revenue when people don’t buy property, so we need to be able to create that confidence.”
The planning office also needs connectivity with the assessor’s office so that the assessor will know when permits are being issued, said Vincent.
“There are some real big disconnects that are preventing us from maximizing the revenue potential this community could be making,” he said, adding that he worked for the town from 2002 to 2007 and had asked for permit tracking back then.
Vincent said he needed to hire outside experts to come in and analyze and evaluate the current system, and to help troubleshoot.
Marsha Standish, the town assessor, told the board that her department was entering data manually for use in a software program. “We have to get the data in to be able to import it into the program," she said.
Vincent said he wanted to begin the process to avoid duplication of work among town employees. “There are at least three departments entering information into a computer that’s already in a computer,” Vincent said. “I’d like to fix that.”
Vincent added that a good system would also allow the public to have access to the information. “That makes us more accountable and when we’re more accountable, we deliver a better service,” he said.
First Selectman Rob Simmons also told the board that the town has many longtime employees who know how to find information in the files, but once they retire their expertise and institutional knowledge will be lost.
According to a 2017 analysis of the town’s departments, many employees are approaching retirement age in the next three to six years and in some cases have worked for the town for 35 to 40 years.
“This is a looming problem for the management of these programs here in the town of Stonington,” Simmons said. “If in fact we lose people who have been here for 15 or 20 years, we lose people who know how to find stuff — they know where to dig it out.”
Simmons said the town needs to create a succession plan that includes technology so that this institutional knowledge can be transferred to new employees. “If we don’t have a competent system that can be used by new people coming in to trace these documents, it’s not going to be just inefficient, it’s going to be a nightmare,” he said.