AUSTIN — County clerks could spend six months in jail and be fined $1,000 for releasing records historically accessible to the public that contain Social Security numbers, according to the state attorney general.
Representatives of county officials statewide called the ruling "huge" in its implications, saying compliance could cost local taxpayers millions of dollars, including countless extra hours of labor.
Some even predicted possible lending delays for homebuyers and those trying to close commercial real estate deals as public servants scurry to ensure records comply with state and federal privacy laws.
Attorney General Greg Abbott, responding to questions raised by Fort Bend County officials, said it is mandatory for county clerks and other government officials to remove Social Security numbers before distributing public documents.
The question arose because state public information law was amended two years ago to say county clerks "may" remove Social Security numbers on documents they archive and distribute to the public.
Abbott, citing other portions of state law and federal law, said Texans have a right to keep their Social Security numbers private. Therefore, county officials are required to delete them before releasing documents to the public.
For county clerks, these documents largely involve real estate titles and liens but also include birth and death certificates and marriage licenses.
County clerks, much like librarians or archivists, are the repository for many records the public files, said Elna Christopher, spokeswoman for the Texas Association of Counties.
Abbott's opinion could require combing through public records going back all the way to the 1930s, she said, when the Social Security system was created as a government insurance plan for old age.
"No one knows what it's going to cost to do this," Christopher said. "It becomes another unfunded mandate. It's huge for counties."
Abbott's opinion warns that disclosure of confidential information such as Social Security numbers is a criminal offense under the Texas Public Information Act, and that applies to all county clerk records.
Clerks are not required to redact Social Security numbers from original, certified documents, but are they required to remove the numbers and note they have done so when releasing them to the public, the opinion says.
"The public archive system is essential to our courts system and our property system," said Don Lee, executive director of the Texas Conference of Urban Counties, representing 36 counties statewide.
"This opinion disrupts the whole real property transfer system we have," he said. "There's a real possibility you won't be able to close on a house."
Christopher said the clerk in Fort Bend County, which has been posting public records on the Internet, has estimated it could take an entire year to create a duplicate system of records with no Social Security numbers attached.
Harris County doesn't post records on the Internet, but they do offer public access terminals with electronic images of original records, said David Beirne, spokesman for the Harris County Clerk's Office.
Even so, it will cost local taxpayers at least $17.4 million for new software and servers to remove Social Security numbers from the electronic documents, he said.
Beirne said the county is sensitive to the legal problems underlying Abbott's opinion. Identity thieves in recent years increasingly have seized on Social Security numbers as a gateway into private bank accounts and other sensitive personal data.
Still, as county officials meet in coming weeks to discuss how they will keep public information available without hurting individual privacy, they say they feel frustrated.
"The direction the attorney general gives is very expensive in some cases, impractical in other cases and impossible in the rest," Lee said.