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Afton City Hall goes paperless

To cut down on costs and headaches of retrieving documents, the city of Afton is moving to create a paperless office, which would digitize thousands of documents with the goal of alleviate the need for archiving material by hand.

The Afton City Council approved the makings of a digital file-keeping system during its July 19 meeting. City officials said the project would help cut costs, save time and safely store information.

Afton keeps hundreds of thousands of paper documents on the top floor of city hall and in a nearby garage.

The new system in Afton would allow the city to scan hard copies, such as applications or permits, among other material. The scanner also interprets writing, which will allow staff to search for a document using keyword searches similar to Google.

An upgrade is expected to cost about $16,000 and includes purchasing a new server, software and a yearly subscription to Laserfiche Avante, a records management program used by small- to mid-sized cities, as well as institutions like the Minnesota Historical Society.

The system won't eliminate paper use entirely but will reduce the amount of copies staff makes because they'll be able to recall documents on a computer or email them.

State data retention laws mandate that public records are kept for a certain amount of time. Records such as public meeting minutes must be retained forever under the law.

Finding older documents can sometimes be a lengthy and tedious process, said council member Stan Ross, who has been exploring paperless possibilities for more than a year.

By putting in a system that allows staff to scan and recall documents, he said the city would likely save money and time by cutting down on filing errors. He added that important documents would be backed up in the event of a fire or other disaster.

"Going paperless saves money, boosts productivity, saves space, makes documentation, ... keeps information much more secure and helps the environment," Ross said.

Much of the discussion during the meeting, however, focused mainly on potential cost savings.

"We're really streamlining a lot of the processes in the office," Ross said.

Afton Mayor Richard Bend said last Tuesday that in the past, the city officials sometimes would call upon former council members for information about past projects or permits. Adding a paperless system, he said, would help better inform elected officials on particular issues.

About 150 cities in Minnesota have switched to a similar system for recordkeeping in recent years.

In neighboring Woodbury, the city has been using a digital recordkeeping systems for some time and is in the process of upgrading to make documents more publicly accessible.

Woodbury City Clerk Kim Blaeser said the move to a digital system is time saving for staff and allows for more government transparency.

"We certainly acknowledge the importance of having those documents accessible," Blaeser said. "Moving into that electronic world will do that."

The switch also helped Woodbury save on the cost of storage space to keep hard copies of documents, she said.

In the coming months, Afton will undergo a few tests runs to work out any kinks once the system is in place.

City officials will later discuss if they plan to digitize older documents after four to five years.