A fee for accessing online Wilkes County deed records was a point of contention between the two contenders for Wilkes register of deeds during a GOP candidates’ forum at the Wilkesboro Civic Center Thursday night.
The register of deeds race between incumbent Misty Smithey and challenger Brian Minton will be decided in the Republican primary.
Primary election day is March 3, but early, one-stop voting for party primaries and Wilkes County Board of Education races starts Thursday and ends Feb. 29. Citizens can both register and vote in early, one-stop voting.
Speaking before Smithey at the forum, Minton said the $150 annual fee shouldn’t be charged because taxpayers already paid for installing and maintaining the system that makes deed records available online.
Minton said the Wilkes Register of Deeds office is the only register of deeds office in the state that charges for accessing online deed records. He said that if elected, dropping the fee would be his first order of business.
Smithey said the $150 fee compensates for losing most of the revenue gained by charging 25 cents per page for paper copies of information that customers now get online. She said the loss from making far fewer paper copies was about $18,500 in 2019.
The $150 fee also funds $6,000 needed annually for website maintenance, she said.
Smithey said the $150 fee brought in $19,800 in 2019. “Our office is self-funded and we run off user fees, so anything extra we would have to get from the taxpayers.”
She added, “This fee is not about me, but what I think is best for the citizens of Wilkes County. I was elected to be safe keeper of the records and not cost the taxpayers money.”
Smithey said online access results in business professionals saving time and money by not having to come to the register of deeds office for title searches and other work. She noted that deed indexes and other indexes can be seen for free.
She said $150 a year isn’t much and some Virginia counties charge over $300 a year. “A lot of registers (in North Carolina) wish now that they had charged a fee because they didn’t realize how much it would cost” to put deed records online.
By requiring that people register and pay a fee to have access, Smithey added, “we can know who is looking at the information.”
When a man who acknowledged working for the same real estate company as Minton asked what he would do with software to promote seamless access to online Wilkes deed records, Minton said not charging for access would help accomplish that.
Minton said the Wilkes Register of Deeds office is operating at least a decade behind and added, “Did you know that Wilkes was the last county (register of deeds office) to put its deeds online?” He said that by using his experience with IT platforms and programming, he can bring the office into the 21st century.
“It’s good to be here tonight to let y’all know who I am and what I do,” said Smithey soon after coming to the podium. Turning to Minton, still on stage, she added, “And Brian, I would like to give you a personal invitation to my office to see that we are in the 21st century. The office has moved forward.”
Smithey said she has worked in the Wilkes Register of Deeds office for 15 years. While working at the front counter during her 12 years as a deputy register of deeds, she said, customers sometimes asked when deeds and other records would be available online.
Smithey said she told them she couldn’t make that decision because she wasn’t register of deeds. She said that after taking office as register of deeds in December 2016, she educated herself by going to conferences and workshops in preparation for bringing the office forward.
She also said that by delaying putting records online, Rick Woodruff (her predecessor) allowed her to know what did and didn’t work well.
Smithey said that after she became register of deeds, a fax machine, scanning capabilities, a new notary public system and a credit card swipe system were added. Office staff got email addresses and birth, death and marriage records became available electronically. Starting this month, the public will be able to electronically record (e-file) real estate transactions.
The “Thank a Veteran” program was started, allowing military veterans to get discounts from local businesses. Over 1,000 veterans are registered in the program, with over 90 participating businesses so far.
When a local Realtor asked Smithey if she would end the $150 fee if re-elected, she said, “As of right now the fee will stay because there are other projects.”
When asked if becoming more efficient would allow a reduction in her current staff of five, Smithey said the ways information is made available changed but not the office workload.
Minton said he’ll bring a strong work ethic to the register of deeds office if elected.
He said he learned about hard work and endurance at age 15 when he got his first job. He said he worked at Walmart while attending Wilkes Central High School and then Wilkes Community College. After graduating from WCC, Minton worked at Lowe’s Companies Inc. for 23 years in departments ranging from credit to information technology.
Minton said he recognized the importance of strong work ethic while in supervisory positions, including as manager of the Goodwill store in Wilkesboro.
He said that while at Lowe’s, he trained for and became a licensed real estate broker in charge. Minton said that through his real estate work, he worked with registers of deeds in counties as far east as Guilford and as far south as Mecklenburg.
When a man in the audience asked Minton about this experience, Minton said he represented the N.C. Association of Realtors on a team that was instrumental in placing deed records online in Mecklenburg, Iredell and Guilford counties.
Minton is in the third of his first four-year term as a Wilkes County commissioner and said that as such he understands county government operations and the need for departments to work within their budgets.
He said he understands the correlation between register of deeds and court records, importance of accuracy and timely recording and the need to always safeguard confidential personal information.
“In the words of Sheriff Chris Shew, ‘I will not do anything to embarrass you or our county.’ Minton said the motto he lives by is “God, family and respect.”