Land evidence records rotting in City Hall

Land evidence records rotting in City Hall

Hundreds of volumes of city records are falling apart as Pawtucket officials look for money to restore them. (Valley Breeze photo by Ethan Shorey)
Preservation fees collected but diverted elsewhere

PAWTUCKET - Dozens of volumes of city land evidence records are crumbling and decaying on the top floor of Pawtucket City Hall, where they are not only neglected but piled in an area where the roof is often leaking.

City officials are required by state law to charge various "recording fees" for copies of city documents, from bills of sale to power of attorney papers, and they are further mandated to put a portion of the money charged citizens back into document restoration and technology upgrades.

"They're supposed to be using the money to maintain their records," said one person who regularly visits City Hall for copies of documents. "They haven't upgraded anything."

He questioned where the money collected is going if not back into document preservation, as required by law.

According to state law, "10 percent of the recording fees" required to be taken in "shall be utilized by each city or town for the purposes of document preservation and technology upgrades." For a fee of $45, that means $4.50 goes into the account, said Hardy.

An additional mandated charge of $4 is split between Pawtucket, which gets $1, and the state, which gets $3 for preservation of state archives. The $1 to the city must "be deposited in the local historical records trust."

A representative from the Office of the City Clerk concedes that the money collected has rarely been used to complete actual work in recent years.

According to Deputy Clerk Michelle Hardy, plastic tarps have been placed over volumes that are at particularly high risk for damage from City Hall's perennially leaky roof. City employees do their best to protect documents, said Hardy, but the task can be challenging.

"We haven't done much restoration in the last six or eight years because cash flow has been an issue," she said.

Because City Hall's roof problems have yet to be resolved, said Hardy, water continues to leak into the records vault, her office below, and the elevator people use to get to the third floor.

City leaders have declined to address continued leaking through the landmark tower on top of City Hall, forcing workers to place containers to catch the incoming water.

According to Hardy, small amounts of money are now becoming available after years of serious financial problems in the city.

"This year we're starting to look up," she said.

With money becoming available, even in small amounts, she and City Clerk Rick Goldstein can finally look at getting some restoration work done, said Hardy.

"Now that we're in better shape, we're looking to expend some of those funds that we have in small doses," she said.

Because restoration work hasn't been done in so long, she said, the total amount in the city's budget line item for maintenance of records has now ballooned to more than $300,000.

But because the city has continued to suffer from cash flow problems, said Hardy, the money is only "on paper" and cannot be spent because it doesn't exist.

"We can't spend the money out of the funds to do what we want to do because the cash hasn't been there," she said. To put it simply, according to Hardy, funds that do come in are spent on more urgent budget items.

Officials "are working on a project right now" with an outside company to possibly complete restoration work of the city records, said Hardy, and "sampling" has begun for that project. Depending on how things go, said Hardy, she and Goldstein could soon be going out to bid for some reproduction of old books.

Restoration of land evidence records is significantly more expensive than reproduction, according to Hardy. One quote officials got a while back to restore many of the older volumes, including re-sewing their bindings, was for $250,000. Adding to the challenge is the original handwriting in many of the city's oldest volumes, she noted.

Not only would reproduction make sense because of the poor condition of some of the older books, said Hardy, but it would allow her to fit the same information in volumes half the size of the current ones. Those volumes could then fit in the city's off-site storage unit, said Hardy, allowing her and her staff to reduce the size of the City Hall vault and better rearrange shelves away from potential leaks.