This weekend, county registers of deeds from across the state will head to Boone for an annual association conference that is largely underwritten by vendors seeking business and the fee-paying public that's on the hook for association dues and travel expenses.
Last year alone, the registers' offices were required to chip in an additional $20,000 in public money to the N.C. Association of Registers of Deeds in the form of higher dues that for small counties nearly doubled what they previously paid. The $20,000 is expected to provide a fifth of the association's estimated $100,000 in annual income for this fiscal year.
Here's where some of that money gets spent:
Two $2,500 college scholarships that are annually awarded to registers of deeds' family members.
$20,000 for a part-time executive director whose principal job is to help put together the conference, which includes a golf tournament, live entertainment, and prizes for officials that have ranged from small flat-screen televisions to $100 gift cards. The prizes, dinners and other perks are often provided by vendors seeking government business with the registers of deeds.
$30,000 on lobbyists to represent the registers of deeds at the legislature. Leaders say they find it difficult to keep up with the General Assembly on their own.
$1,500 on a website that is mostly closed to the public. Leaders of the group say it contains personal information about registers of deeds.
Up to $4,000 in travel expenses for the association's top three leaders, all of whom are registers of deeds annually elected to the jobs by their peers. Each year, the outgoing president gets a gift worth as much as $400.
Matt McCall, the newly-elected register of deeds for Iredell County, says the spending and schmoozing with vendors reflects a culture of entitlement that needs to be curtailed.
"I just think as a taxpayer I'd be ticked off if I knew that an association indirectly paid for by tax dollars was using the money to pay for scholarships for the registers of deeds' kids," said McCall, a Republican. "We just keep tacking perks on the backs of the taxpayers."
Very few registers of deeds make less than $50,000 a year, while roughly a quarter make $80,000 or more, according to a recent survey by the UNC School of Government.
The association's current and incoming presidents saw no problem with the perks the association and vendors provide to registers of deeds. They say much of it is long-standing practice that has caused no problems.
"This is my 15th conference, and it's always been done this way," said Kathy Young, a Republican, the association's current president and the register of deeds for Stokes County.
A child's scholarship
Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause's North Carolina chapter, said the perks and partying suggest the registers of deeds learned nothing from the lobbying scandals that generated substantial reforms in state government over the past decade. Today, with few exceptions, lawmakers can't accept gifts and meals from those seeking favorable legislation.
"If all this is true, I find it very inappropriate and probably offensive to the taxpayers," Phillips said. "Certainly public money should not be used for the entertainment and the perks and those kinds of benefits for public servants."
The scholarships have been around since the 1980s. Among the winners: Kathy Young's daughter, who used the money to pay for her education at a community college.
"These people are bettering their education," Kathy Young said. "We pay public dollars for a lot of things that aren't beneficial, and I think this is a beneficial thing. There's a lot of waste in state and local and federal government. It's everywhere, and I don't call this a waste."
Prizes and programs
Laura Riddick, Wake County's register of deeds since 1996, has long opposed the perks and the vendor relationships that the association encourages. She considers much of it unethical, but she said she has found it difficult to get her colleagues to see it that way.
"I'm one voice in 100," she said, "and I'm clearly in the minority."
She said the cost of prizes provided by the vendors - and their underwriting of conference events - likely gets passed on to the public in the form of higher costs for their services. She also disputes the need for lobbyists, saying registers of deeds should be able to keep up with legislative action through their elected representatives.
Wayne Rash, the incoming association president and Caldwell County's register of deeds, said the vendor prizes are open to anyone who attends the conferences. An email sent to the registers of deeds this week invites only them to stop by a vendor booth and register for an iPod raffle.
Riddick said there have been some instances where the prizes are open to others, but she has witnessed vendors telling attendees that only registers of deeds can apply. She said a vendor that does business with her office paid for a booth at the conference in 2001 and did not offer prizes. She said the vendor saw so little traffic that the company decided not to return.
The conference's chief purpose is to inform registers of deeds about current laws, new technology and other trends. A review of conference programs shows much of the time is spent on dinners, golf, dancing and visits to fun destinations.
Not all the conference work pertains to registers-of-deeds duties. A review of the program for this year's conference at the Broyhill Inn & Conference Center shows attendees will listen to a three-hour afternoon session that includes using social media to help them get re-elected. The session's title: "Today's Technology = Election Wins."
This year's conference does includes one change that was announced after The News & Observer interviewed Young: Instead of a gift exchange that the registers of deeds had traditionally held for themselves, they will take donations for a charity.
Dues rise, fees rise
Registers of deeds are elected officials who record many vital records, such as real estate transactions, property maps, births and deaths. They also issue wedding licenses and administer the oaths for notary publics. Their offices are supposed to be supported by fees they charge.
Last year, the association voted to increase the dues each county register of deeds office pays by $200; that nearly doubled the fees that smaller counties had been paying. Association records show its overall budget has tripled in 10 years, from $29,000 to $100,000.
This year, the association gave its blessing to fee changes passed by the legislature that include increases for some services registers of deeds provide to the general public. The largest fee increase pertains to filing records that modify or change previously filed real estate documents. Starting Oct. 1, the cost could increase from $25 to more than $200 per document.
A fiscal analysis of the legislation by legislative staff said it likely would increase the amount of fees generated at register of deeds office across the state by $1.4 million, with the registers' offices receiving all but about $90,000 of that.
McCall, Riddick, and Craig Olive, Johnston County's register of deeds, say the fee increases are punitive during tough economic times. They say their offices and others across the state do not need the additional money because the down economy has clobbered real estate activity, resulting in fewer of the real estate filings that make up the bulk of the registers of deeds' traffic.
Riddick and McCall say they suspect the fee increases are being used to prop up staffs instead of downsizing to meet the real needs of the public.
McCall said he has reduced his budget by 25 percent through measures such as cutting out his predecessor's car and travel allowances, renegotiating contracts with software vendors, eliminating overtime and chopping two positions.
Rash said the intent of the legislation was to be "revenue neutral." He said he favors tweaking the legislation in the next session to reduce the increase.
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