From Rockingham Now
By Gerri Hunt
The Rockingham County Register of Deeds now offers passport services – just the fourth in the state. It’s also the very first to offer walk-ins, as the other counties do it by appointment only.
Register of Deeds Ben Curtis said he was aware when he was running for office that the county was going to cut a position from the staff.
“I talked to [some of the county commissioners] and said, ‘Look, if I figure out a way to pay for one of the salaries, then that makes cutting that person obsolete,’” Curtis said. “After I got here, I found out that there were four register of deeds offices doing passports… the fourth was Guilford County.”
So Curtis jumped in his car and visited Guilford County Register of Deeds Jeff Thigpen.
“I spent some time there, went through the process and got my passport,” Curtis said. He returned to Wentworth to talk to his team about offering the service and then to the county manager and commissioners, who all threw their solid support behind the initiative.
Curtis said he sold the service to commissioners by showing them how successful the other three counties were.
Brunswick County, which began issuing passports first in the state in 2003, issued 1,300 passports last year among its 107,431 residents.
With a population of nearly 178,000, Johnston County issued 1,858 passports last year – its second year in the program.
And Guilford County started in December 2016, averaging 400 per month – and there are five other places across the county to get a passport.
If Rockingham County processes passports to 52 percent of its population like Brunswick County did last year, that would be 970 passports – and would add up to $24,250 per year that comes into the county. And if passport photos are needed, at $10 a pop, that’s an extra $9,700 for the county.
“That’s a salary,” Curtis said. “And it’s a sorely needed service.”
The North Carolina Department of State approved Curtis’ application to be a Passport Acceptance Facility. The first passport was issued on June 12, to Curtis’ own mother. The next were for a couple from Stokes County.
While many places offer passport photos, the only other place to get the passport itself is the Reidsville Post Office.
When a passport is acquired there, the applicant’s mandatory $25 processing fee is sent to the federal government; if the passport is acquired at the register of deeds office, that fee stays local, in Rockingham County coffers.
The county clerk of court’s office used to issue passports, up until 2007.
“I asked Clerk of Court Mark Pegram why they stopped, and he said it became a full-time job,” Curtis said – adding that since Pegram’s office is run by the state, the state received the $25 processing fees. “It was a benefit to the public, but he had a county employee doing something that the state government got the money for. So now we have a county-paid employee bringing in money to the county.”
But Curtis doesn’t want to stop with funding a salary. He plans to target marketing to neighboring counties that do not offer passport services, including Caswell and Stokes counties in North Carolina, and Pittsylvania and Henry counties in Virginia. He will have 4-foot-square signs installed along highways leading into Rockingham County.
Drawing from the populations of those four areas could bring in $50,000 to $60,000, Curtis said.
“The entire reason I started this was to keep everybody here employed,” he said. “But I think it’s got the opportunity to create a job, if it takes off.”
Curtis and Deputy Register of Deeds Susan Chilton trained in Raleigh to be certified, and are the only two people in the office that can process passports – but the downside is, neither of them can handle vital records, just land records.
“Susan and I cannot have access to birth records, marriage licenses or death certificates – the vital records. It’s a layer of security. They don’t want me creating a birth record and creating a passport; they want it to be two people.”
“We’re trying to be more customer friendly,” said Curtis. “We offer turn-key service. When you get your passport, you need a certified copy of your birth certificate – and guess where you get that from? That’s here at the register of deeds office.”
The Register of Deeds is located on the right side of the lower level of the county courthouse, at 170 N.C. 65 in Reidsville.
Before heading there for a passport, Curtis suggests placing a call to his office at 336-342-8820 to make sure required documents are in hand – including a valid driver’s license and a certified birth certificate copy.
Anyone born in North Carolina since 1971, or in Rockingham County since 1913, can get their birth certificate from Curtis’ office.
North Carolina natives born before 1971 – or anyone not born in North Carolina – need to get theirs from the register of deeds in the county where they were born.
“If a family of four comes in and they’re headed to Paris, it will take us 30 minutes to knock out the whole family’s passports,” Curtis said. It takes up to six weeks for the passport to be received by the applicant in the mail.
Passports for adults are good for 10 years, while those for children are good for five years.
In addition to the $25 processing fee, an adult passport book costs $110, while a child’s (under 16 years old) costs $80.
Passport cards are also available, valid only for land and sea travel (not by air) to Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean, which are $30 for adults and $15 for children.
Curtis relayed a story of a couple on a cruise who found out about a death in the family but couldn’t fly home because they had passport cards instead of passport books. He said the cards are most useful for people who cross the border regularly in vehicles so they don’t have to get their passport books stamped every time.
Additional information on passports can be found at travel.state.gov.