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Broken Records

Think of John Elway and the rest of the Broncos' offense trying to score without their front line. Or the Avalanche endlessly trying to kill an eternal double penalty. Now you know what it's like to work in Secretary of State Vikki Buckley's division of commercial recordings, which is struggling...
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Think of John Elway and the rest of the Broncos' offense trying to score without their front line. Or the Avalanche endlessly trying to kill an eternal double penalty.

Now you know what it's like to work in Secretary of State Vikki Buckley's division of commercial recordings, which is struggling to operate with nearly 40 percent of its full-time staff missing. And the public is paying the price.

As of last week, the largest section of the secretary of state's office, which is budgeted for 27 full-time workers, was operating with only seventeen, according to sources there. A handful of the vacant positions were being filled by temporary workers with minimal training. But many jobs simply remain empty.

The situation could easily deteriorate further. Of the five supervisors and managers who work in the corporations division, three are scheduled to retire in the next four months. Between them, they have nearly three-quarters of a century of experience. Two have decided to take advantage of a new state early-retirement program.

And given Buckley's history of moving at a glacial pace to fill vacancies in her office ("The Buckley Stops Here," September 17), workers there say they have little expectation of getting help anytime soon.

Although the secretary of state's other divisions handle higher-profile business--she regulates bingo and oversees elections--the smooth functioning of the commercial recordings division is far more crucial to the day-to-day affairs of most Coloradans. Documents establishing and dissolving corporations and limited-liability partnerships are processed and filed there. So are official trade names and Uniform Commercial Code filings.

While some of the names of the documents may sound unfamiliar, they affect nearly every resident in the state. If you take out a loan or buy a house, the papers crucial to those transactions are handled by the secretary of state's office.

Not surprisingly, the huge number of vacancies in the commercial recordings division has taken a toll in the office's effectiveness. Under Secretary of State Natalie Meyer, a fellow Republican who left office in 1994 after twelve years, it generally took three days between the time a piece of paper was received by the department and the time it was officially filed as a public document.

Today, however, because of all the empty desks, that time is closer to ten days and may be as long as two weeks. Even that represents a vast improvement from a couple of years ago, when the delays more often approached a month, according to sources in the office. The progress, these sources add, is only the result of a recent overtime push by the staffers who remain; most come in an hour early each day to keep up with their work.

The vacancies in one part of the office create a domino effect in other sections, leaving undone work scattered throughout the division. For example, the office is supposed to have six full-time telephone operators who answer questions and fill information requests from the public. Today the number is down to four. Frequently, that gap must be absorbed by other employees--and if a phone call is not picked up by the skeleton crew of operators, it rolls over to data-entry clerks, who then cannot do their work. "These days, they don't get anything done because they're always answering the phone," says one worker.

Four months ago Buckley introduced a new program that allows the professionals who use the office--corporate trademark attorneys and lending institutions--to bypass the long wait for documents to be processed. But the convenience to the professionals comes at a cost to the rest of the public.

The so-called corporate express program permits documents to be filed immediately rather than be subjected to the now-standard ten-day delay. Because such documents go directly to the front of the filing line, the processing of other, non-express papers is delayed further. But there is another way in which the corporate express program shortchanges the general public.

Attorneys and document service companies must pay an extra $15 for the privilege of skipping the week-and-a-half wait. That extra expense is rarely picked up by the companies themselves. "We pass it on to our clients," says Kurt Plender, office manager for one of the area's largest research and filing companies, CSC United States Corporation Company.

Plender says his office uses the corporate express program frequently--but only because he must. "If the secretary of state was more up-to-date, we wouldn't use it nearly as much," he says.

The result: The general public is in effect being assessed a government fee to pay for Buckley's inefficiency.

This is not the first time that Buckley has been criticized for how her office handles its paperwork.

Traditionally, lenders across the state had a hard time researching liens and finance statements before extending a loan. That's because the documents were handled by each of the state's 63 counties. Thus, a Denver banker researching a loan candidate in, say, Colorado Springs would need to travel to the El Paso County Clerk and Recorder's Office.

In 1995, in an effort to make life easier for attorneys and lenders, the state legislature passed a new law requiring that a Central Indexing System, or CIS, be formed. It was to be a database of liens and other financial information from across the state that could be accessed by anyone with a computer. On July 1, 1996, it went online.

Two years later the state auditor evaluated the new program. In a sharply critical report released this past May, the auditor reported that "the data in CIS are not complete, accurate or timely. Also, searching the database is complicated. We believe that these problems have prevented CIS from accomplishing one of its primary goals"--making life simpler for the public.

Although the auditors faulted individual counties for some of the system's failure, they placed much of the blame squarely on Buckley. They noted, for instance, that she wasn't following the law requiring the secretary of state's office to provide "administrative, clerical, technical and legal assistance as the [CIS] may require." Indeed, despite numerous requests for help from the new CIS board of directors, Buckley consistently refused, the audit says.

Another violation of law found by the state auditors may sound sadly familiar to the dwindling number of employees still working in Buckley's commercial recordings division. According to the law that created CIS in 1995, the new system was to be controlled by an eleven-member board of directors, including a representative from the secretary of state's office or the secretary herself. This past July, after getting slapped by the audit, Buckley filled the position--one full year after it had become vacant.

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