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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane County adopts new record-keeping policy, aims to get rid of paper storage

John Dickson,  the chief operating officer for Spokane County,  advocates “lean management,” including in records retention. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

How much time, paperwork and taxpayer money does it take to order printer ink for a Spokane County government office?

Too much, says county Auditor Vicky Dalton.

Invoices and vouchers need signatures from a department head before they’re walked to another building and dropped into a wire basket. Then those documents are evaluated by an accountant in Dalton’s office and tediously copied into a computer system.

“And then, after that, the computer system can generate a check, a warrant, to send off to the vendor,” Dalton said. “That’s the process right now. It’s paper. It’s time-consuming.”

All that for a toner cartridge. “And this is just one of many, many examples,” Dalton said, grimacing. “I won’t even get into the payroll.”

Dalton, who’s been the elected auditor since 1999, looks forward to the day when county employees can order office supplies without stepping away from their computers. She and other officials recently completed the first phase of a yearslong project aimed at streamlining the county’s record-keeping practices.

It’s no easy task, as the county processes thousands of physical documents each day, and each office has its own strategy for keeping them organized.

“We have departments that just keep records they don’t need to be keeping,” Dalton said. “That causes a lot of storage issues. It causes a lot of management issues. And it causes a lot of duplication.”

Many records – from arrest warrants to service contracts to receipts for printer ink – are stored in county facilities, and many are stored off-site.

In 2016, Dalton said, the county paid nearly $53,000 to store “hundreds and hundreds of boxes” of records at Northwest Vital Records Center, a complex of warehouses on the West Plains that was an anti-aircraft missile launch site during the Cold War.

“We are definitely burning up a lot of storage,” Dalton said.

By storing records electronically and discarding those that are no longer needed, the county aims to save time and money. It’s one of many “lean” management strategies spearheaded by Chief Operating Officer John Dickson, who joined the county in 2013.

The Washington secretary of state’s office determines which records need to be kept, who needs to keep them and for how long. There are detailed retention schedules for nearly every kind of document that passes through government hands.

The county’s new policy, approved by commissioners this month, says employees should “retain only those records that are required by law, necessary for operations or prudent.”

“It’s always good to throw things away that you don’t need anymore,” Dalton said.

Rather than visit the storage facility for an annual purge of unneeded records, county employees will assign an automatic “destruct date” to each document in an electronic management system, she said. Some documents will only exist electronically, but some will inevitably need to be printed.

The new policy also should improve transparency, county officials say, by making it easier to find records when the public requests them.

Frank Oesterheld, a records management expert who works in the assessor’s office, said organization and discipline are key.

“If we do that, then transparency is an easy job,” he said.