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Douglas County voters must decide whether a merger of the Register of Deeds and Assessor Offices would be a good fit or a bad combination.
The Douglas County Board voted 5-2 last summer to place the merger proposal on the November ballot.
The offices, which have been merged in Lancaster County, were chosen because they both deal with land and property matters. The Register of Deeds Office staff maintains and preserves all property records for the county, including real estate title transfers. The Assessor Office establishes the property values for tax purposes.
The measure's key proponent, board member Pam Tusa, said the merger will save the county at least $180,000 through the elimination of one political officeholder and one chief deputy.
“This is not a personal thing for me, it's to streamline government,” said Tusa, who is a Democrat.
Register of Deeds Diane Battiato has been an outspoken critic of the merger and is campaigning to convince voters that it is a bad idea.
Battiato said the two elected offices have operated smoothly as separate entities for more than a century. She said no study has been done to provide the voter with information for casting an informed “yes” or “no” vote.
“The offices are not close in function, and the duties don't overlap with each other,” Battiato said. “Why now? Now is not the right time to be doing this.”
The current register of deeds and assessor are both Democrats. The Douglas County Democratic Party and representatives of several Omaha title companies are among those urging voters to reject the merger, saying the proposal hasn't been carefully researched.
Assessor Roger Morrissey has taken a neutral stance and said he's comfortable letting the voters make the decision.
Douglas County Board member Mike Boyle said he doesn't believe the merger will save any money.
“It's not a good merger,” said Boyle, who is a Democrat. “We might as well be merging the public defender and the county engineer. It does not make any sense.”
Tusa said a handful of staff positions between the two offices could be eliminated through attrition once both offices are cross-trained, achieving greater savings for taxpayers.
“Keep in mind it's a merger, not an elimination of a department,” Tusa said. “I think the public perceives if there's a merger we are eliminating one whole department. We will still have the two departments. They would just be overseen by one officeholder.”
Battiato and her supporters have criticized the County Board for not conducting a feasibility study or a cost analysis to examine the potential savings of a merger.
She said there have been no discussions within county government about how the combined office would share duties, equipment or technology or reallocate staff.
“There is no information for voters to make a knowledgeable decision,” Battiato said. “Our key hope is the voters, because there is such a lack of information for them, that they will vote ‘no' on the merger issue in the hopes that we can continue to do our business independently as we have done in a very efficient and smooth fashion.”
In Lancaster County, voters in 2000 approved a merger by a more than 4-1 ratio.
But opponents of the Douglas County merger point out that Lancaster County's operating budget including payroll has climbed by 30 percent since the merger took effect in 2003, according to data supplied by Lancaster's fiscal administrator.
Lancaster County officials say the rising personnel costs were not related to the merger but were mostly linked to contractual salary increases for union employees.
Longtime Lancaster County Assessor Norm Agena, a Republican, said he has spoken with about 20 people from Douglas County who had questions about the merger.
“We've told everybody it's worked out well,” Agena said. “We have not had a problem with it down here, and frankly, it's not even discussed. It's saved us money, and it's worked great, and that's the end of the story.”
Tusa went to Lincoln recently to meet with several Lancaster officials and title companies who use the merged office.
“They said it's been real smooth,” Tusa said. “There has been no disruption in services. There were no complaints. Nothing.”
If Douglas County voters support the merger, the county would have another two years to plan for the implementation, Tusa said.
Dan Nolte, the former Lancaster register of deeds, said there are some potential drawbacks for Douglas County voters to consider.
Nolte, now the county clerk, said that under a combined office, the lone officeholder may decide to shift more personnel into handling land appraisals and put less emphasis on managing land records.
Since the Lancaster merger, the total number of full-time employees has dropped from 50 to 42. The assessor's staff dropped from 39 to 37, but the deeds staff decreased from 11 to five.
Nolte, who opposed the Lancaster merger, said voters in Douglas County should ask themselves: “‘What are you trying to fix? Do you have a well-thought-out plan?'
“Everybody agrees they're for efficiency in government,” Nolte said. “The question is how do you get there?”
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