Lawmakers blast land records office
An investigation of the state Bureau of Conveyances finds mismanagement
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The state agency that records land titles is so "severely mismanaged" that it might have lost far more than $226,000 in two years through a variety of missteps, a legislative committee says.
The Bureau of Conveyances is losing money because of uncollected fees and remains vulnerable to abuse, says a report released yesterday.
The agency also has suffered because of staff infighting, excessive overtime, management vacancies and a lack of uniform policies, the report alleges.
And despite an increase in employees and decrease in document filings last year, the bureau lags months to a year in making documents available online.
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Problems at the state Bureau of Conveyances are so ingrained that a special master should be appointed to oversee it for three years, a legislative investigative committee says.
A legislative committee has both short- and long-term advice for the state Bureau of Conveyances. Within the next year the bureau should:
» Offer online filing of land documents.
» Better manage its use of overtime pay.
» Establish cash management guidelines.
» Make agreements with vendors via written contracts.
In the next three years it should:
» Assess whether it might be better placed in another state department.
» Assess whether the bureaus two divisions -- Land Court and Regular System -- could be merged.
» Consider privatization of its services.
The state agency that records land titles has been severely mismanaged, is losing money and remains vulnerable to abuse, according to a 60-page report released yesterday by the Joint Investigative Committee on the Bureau of Conveyances.
"The problems at the Bureau of Conveyances are long-standing and deep-seated, and we have to do what's right and change that," said Sen. Jill Tokuda (D, Kaneohe), who co-chaired the committee with Rep. Joe Souki (D, Wailuku).
A $75,000 consultant's report and the recommendations of the bureau's own internal auditor to improve its operations have not been heeded in recent years, Tokuda said.
Appointing a special master is "outside of the box" and would ensure that needed changes at the bureau are carried out, Tokuda said. "We want to get the bureau where it's functional," she said.
The committee's findings are organized into three "themes," alleging:
» Severe mismanagement of the bureau employees and operations has hampered effective and efficient property recordings.
» Poor fiscal management has led the state to lose at least $226,000 in revenue over two years.
» Operations are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
Testimony by bureau employees, consultants and clients at a dozen hearings over the summer and fall provided the fodder for the recommendations.
The agency remains months behind in making records available online for its Regular System and a year behind for its Land Court System, even though the bureau had four more employees and almost 10 percent fewer documents to process in fiscal year 2007 compared with fiscal 2006, Tokuda said yesterday in an interview.
Another key issue is the apparent overuse of overtime pay in the division, Tokuda said.
Record-keeping and rules for cash transactions, fees for services, overtime pay and computer system contracts are so incomplete, Tokuda said, that the $226,000 cited as lost revenue is conservative. "I couldn't begin to speculate" how much potential income is not being collected, she said.
Closing loopholes in bureau processes is essential to ensuring the data's security, Tokuda said.
Laura Thielen, who as director of the Department of Land and Natural Resources oversees the bureau, said yesterday that she had only skimmed the report but had one reaction.
"I would not support a special master hired by a committee," she said. "I think that is exactly the wrong thing to do." Thielen said she needs to retain responsibility over divisions in her department.
Thielen also said she believes the committee's report "seems to exonerate the department for criminal or unethical behavior."
The state attorney general's office is conducting an ongoing criminal investigation in connection with the bureau, and the state Ethics Commission is investigating alleged ethics violations. Neither investigation is complete.
Many aspects of the legislative committee's recommendations are complementary to suggestions from a Thielen-headed working group released on Thursday, Tokuda said.
Tokuda said she plans to work with Thielen to incorporate the working group's suggestions into the final draft of committee recommendations.
One of the working group's recommendations is to offer online filing of documents as soon as next summer, a move Tokuda said she supports.
The committee's draft recommendations are posted on the Legislature's Web site at www.capitol.hawaii.gov, and comments received over the next two weeks will be added to the final draft, Tokuda said.
Tokuda said she expects there will be bills concerning the bureau introduced by her committee members, the Lingle administration and other lawmakers.