Merge or not? Voters have final say in recorder, clerk offices

When Cook County Recorder of Deeds Karen Yarbrough goes before county commissioners Wednesday with her office's proposed budget, she isn't quite sure what to say.

After all, her office could be abolished if voters on Nov. 8 approve its merger with the Cook County clerk's office. Ever since the proposal won over commissioners, she has had unanswered questions: Would her unique fraud division, which alerts property owners of unlawful changes, continue in some form? What services would be eliminated? How much would such a merger cost taxpayers, while possibly saving $1 million annually?

Yarbrough, who also is seeking re-election for the same office, contends she and the voters don't have enough information to make such a decision on Election Day.

"This is a strange place to be right now," Yarbrough said. "I'm running unopposed, and I'm someone who likes what I do, and now I have to go before the board to present our budget for an office that may be abolished. What should I tell them, What am I supposed to do?"

Supporters say the merger will eliminate certain positions and streamline operations to save money and cut red tape. If leaders strategically plan the cuts, affected people could fill spots vacated from attrition elsewhere in county government, said Cook County Clerk David Orr.

"If you took the top six or seven positions in the recorder's office, and they each make more than $100,000, you could reach $1 million in savings very quickly," Orr said.

While Yarbrough and Orr, both Democrats, bat around the possibilities, Cook County voters will make the ultimate decision on Nov. 8. The referendum question was proposed by 12th District County Commissioner John Fritchey.

He was unavailable for comment.

The Cook County Board of Commissioners voted 10-5 in July to allow voters to say whether the recorder's office should be eliminated and services merged with the clerk's office. If approved, the merger could be completed by 2020.

Yarbrough said no recent studies were done of either office to determine the potential annual savings or determine how much the merger process would cost. She said a 2003 study of a potential merger between the same two offices projected a $600,000 annual savings. A current number she has heard is about $1 million.

"I am not against saving money, especially since I also am a Cook County taxpayer," she said. "But everyone I have talked to, on the commission and others, say we're doing a good job."

Since Yarbrough took office in 2012, she said her staffing has been reduced from 190 to 156, and it could again be reduced to 130 in her proposed budget. She also has since closed one of five offices. Her current $12 million annual budget would propose a 10 percent decrease.

Yet, she said, her staffing level now is adequate to handle the 800,000 filings annually on properties around the city and suburbs. As the economy improves, and more properties change hands, the potential filings could reach more than 1 million annually, reminiscent of 2007 before the recession, she said.

Orr said his own office had 310 workers about four years ago and now has 275. He oversees a budget of about $34 million for 2016 and is presenting his 2017 budget of $31 million this Friday before the commissioners.

Orr has been in local government since 1979, and clerk since 1990. But at 72, he said he may not be the one in office if such a merger were to happen. While he said he has no plans to retire, he isn't sure who will win the office in the next election.

"If it doesn't pass, then nothing happens," Orr said. "If it does pass, then the merger takes place. Either way, we need to save money and millions of dollars that are saved then can be spent on more critical things, like more police officers."

David Orr, Cook County clerk
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