The Guilford County Register of Deeds office is adding a new service for area residents who are about to fly to Bora Bora, do some mountain hiking in Tibet or play Pokémon Go in Katmandu.
The deeds office – in addition to its regular land records, birth certificate and marriage license services and other duties – is becoming a passport office.
The Guilford County deeds office has gotten all the needed clearances from the US State Department and will begin providing the service in early October. Guilford County Register of Deeds Jeff Thigpen said this week that the move should make it more convenient for area residents to get a passport.
It’s an unusual service for a county deeds office to provide; only two of the 100 counties in North Carolina provide passport service through their county’s deeds offices.
Thigpen said that the service is needed in this area because this is a large county with only two limited options for passport services.
“Currently, there are two passport offices in Guilford County – both are with the US post office and are by appointment only,” Thigpen said.
He said that, when his deeds office first starts the program next month, his office’s services too will be by appointment, but he added that he expects to offer that service on a walk-in basis once the program has been established.
“The walk-in service may start in the spring,” Thigpen said.
He also said that after that it should be much more convenient than the current options where people with travel plans are often rushed and may have trouble getting an appointment at the two existing passport application sites. He said that sometimes Guilford County residents must travel to Davidson County or to other offices outside of Guilford County to get a passport in time. He said it can be hard to get an appointment at the two post offices.
“There’s a real need to have a place in Greensboro that’s open all day,” he said.
At the start, the service will only be provided at the Register of Deeds office at 201 W. Market St., not at the High Point deeds office at 325 E. Russell Ave.
“I think there is room to have a conversation about High Point,” Thigpen said of the prospects of one day offering the service in that city.
Offering passport services will also create a new revenue stream for the Guilford County Register of Deeds office.
“For each person that comes in, that’s $25 for the county,” Thigpen said, adding that if he or she needs a passport photo taken at the deeds office it will be another $10.
There are other federal fees associated with a passport depending on whether it’s a new passport or renewal and whether it needed to be expedited. The typical passport renewal fee is $110.
The passport service will be set up on the first floor of the deeds office in county space that opened up this summer when the Guilford County Veteran’s Services office was put under the Guilford County Department of Health and Human Services and moved to the county’s Human Services building on Maple Street.
Thigpen said the startup costs for the program are low and it will not require any additional staff. He said that the office will purchase a passport camera and that some staff who cannot work with marriage licenses anymore because of their objections to gay marriage can be put on this job. He added that more internet access to deeds services provided by his office has helped reduce demands on his staff.
Thigpen also said that offering the service should create a good revenue stream for the county once people get used to taking care of their passport needs at a deeds office.
“Johnston County does it and they made $100,000 last year,” he said. “We’re a lot bigger than Johnson County.”
That county, where Smithfield is the county seat, has about 178,000 residents while Guilford County has just over 500,000.
Thigpen added that the only other county with a deeds office that provides passport service is Brunswick County – which, of course, is the coastal county that Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing ran before he came here in 2013. Thigpen said he thinks the experience in Brunswick County helps Lawing see the upside of a county deeds office offering the service.
Passports can be renewed by mail, but the process is involved and, even when that’s an option, some people prefer to use an office. Thigpen said that, at the deeds office, trained workers will review the information and make certain the forms are filled out correctly. He said that will lessen the likelihood of a mistake causing the application to be rejected.
“We make sure everything is in order,” Thigpen said.
In a world where terrorism is a major problem and passports are extremely important documents, the federal government is very particular when it comes to authorizing agencies to handle passport applications. Thigpen said the State Department checked to make sure his deeds office has good internal controls and security procedures in place before granting the right to process passport applications.
When the service begins in a few weeks, the Register of Deeds office will likely offer appointments from 8:30 to 11:30 a.m. and from 1:30 to 3 p.m.
Thigpen makes over $116,000 a year and he continually does something that’s virtually impossible to do – make the deeds office interesting. Since he was elected register of deeds in 2004, he’s made many changes that included updating the technology, providing more services online, offering parents of newborns remote birth certificate application by using iPads in the maternity area of hospitals and he’s created a searchable online database of old slave records in Guilford County. He also launched a highly successful Thank A Vet program in which the department issues veteran’s ID cards that give them discounts at participating area businesses.
At the Thursday, Sept. 1 meeting of the commissioners, the NC Association of County Commissioners (NCACC) presented Thigpen and others responsible for the Thank A Vet program an Excellence in Innovation Award. That recognizes initiatives that successfully improve service delivery to citizens. Since that program began in May of last year, about 1,500 ID cards have been issued and about 275 participating businesses in Guilford County have been offering discounts of different kinds. Guilford County was the first North Carolina county to implement the program and now six counties in the state offer similar programs while others are planning to do so.
At that Sept. 1 meeting, Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips said the Thank A Vet program was “incredibly worthwhile.”
Thigpen said that he realized that the program was very real when it was announced at a recent NCACC meeting that one veteran had saved $3,000 on closing costs when buying a home.
He said the goal is to get to 500 area businesses participating by November, whether it is an offer of a couple of dollars off or a major discount on a service or product. Those who wish to participate in that program can go to www.guilforddeeds.com or google “Guilford Thank A Vet.”
Thigpen said he’s hoping the new passport service will catch on with area citizens as well in the coming months once it starts up in a few weeks.
“It will help my staff increase their value and bring in revenue while the Republicans are doing all these tax cuts,” Thigpen, a staunch Democrat, joked, referring to the Republican-majority Guilford County Board of Commissioners.