Monday, September 11, 2006

Wayne County's private paper chase

Company that stores public records refuses to give access to individuals over a payment dispute.

Paul Egan / The Detroit News

Wayne County public records, including health and mental health records, have become hostages in a financial dispute between the county and the private company that stores the records.

When Merry Wilson of Detroit recently tried to obtain an autopsy report from her sister's decades-old and still-unsolved murder, she was told no one could access such records until the dispute was resolved and she might want to go to court and seek a subpoena.

"I don't think it's right," Wilson said. "I want the records, and I think I'm entitled to them."

Officials are downplaying the effect of the dispute. They say that as a result of recent negotiations, individual records, including those Wilson wants, can be obtained as needed, but only after requests are vetted by the lawyers for the company storing the records at a warehouse in Warren.

Massachusetts-based Iron Mountain Inc. continues to deny the county's request for a wholesale retrieval of about 15,000 boxes of mental health, health, jail, medical examiner and other county records, county spokesman Dennis Niemiec said.

Critics say the county has mishandled the issue, and it is appalling that access to public records has been delayed and is at the mercy of a private company. A union official says the case raises questions about whether public records should even be stored in private hands.

"It's an outrage," said Rose Bogaert, chairwoman of the Wayne County Taxpayers' Association. "This is not an issue that should in any way affect the individual taxpayer."

Bogaert said she doesn't necessarily object to private storage of county records, but said the county must assume responsibility for assuring public access. That means it must pay any fees it rightfully owes or "seize the records and move them" if the money demanded is not justified under the contract, she said.

In June 2005, when the county told Iron Mountain it wanted to move the records to a county-owned warehouse it is developing in Southgate, the company told the county it would cost about $130,000 to pack them up and move them out of the warehouse, both sides agree.

The county balked at the fee and, when it did not receive the records, stopped paying $6,000 monthly storage fees as well. Iron Mountain is claiming about another $90,000 in back rent.

The dispute has caused delays for people seeking records such as patient records from the closed Eloise (Wayne County General) Hospital, mental health treatment records, tuberculosis test records and immunization records. The records range from about 5 years old to about 100 years old, Niemiec said.

Melissa Mahoney, a spokeswoman for Iron Mountain, said the county can't retrieve its records because "the client is not in good standing," due to unpaid storage fees.

However, "when it comes to (individual) medical records, we would always release those records regardless of a customer's standing with Iron Mountain," Mahoney said.

In an effort to resolve the dispute, the company has offered to discount that fee and also to discount the amount it is charging the county for unpaid rent, she said.

The county wants to avoid a lawsuit if possible and simply seizing the records without first going to court is not an option because "they have possession," Niemiec said.

You can reach Paul Egan at (313) 222-2069 or pegan@detnews.com.