February 23, 2023

Provoncha’s Essex Co Legacy

In 30 years at the helm of records as Essex County Clerk, Joseph A. Provoncha documented, chronicled and kept pace with change that moved hand-written records into the 21st century.

“I’ve had 30 years,” he quipped. “Now, what year would you like to talk about?”

His ready smile and quick wit led the conversation. At Essex Center for Rehabilitation, “I’m well,” he reassured. “I’m here for rehabilitation and not drinking rehab either.”

Provoncha retired near the end of 2022. The County Clerk’s Office celebrated Christmas with him at the office.

Taking a look back over decades, the clever clerk shared a few poignant reminders about the importance of keeping pace with technology while respecting the richness of history in Essex County. He shared many funny stories, some poignant reminders of the public interface involved in the job.

LONG-TERM SERVICE

Provoncha’s tenure as Essex County Clerk is a close second to the 33 years served by Harry M. MacDougal, who was elected 11 times in an era when the clerk’s term was three years. Provoncha won in eight successive election cycles with four-year terms, the most recent in 2019. He first took county office on Jan. 1, 1992.

The records he’s kept and preserved date all the way back to 1799 and include the deed book from Clinton County when Essex County was set to its own boundaries.

“When I first came here, we took in regular recordings. One or two times a week we would microfilm the court documents and deeds. Then we would send them out and get a box back from the Business Records Corporation and compare the film to actual deeds. It was all manual.”

It was tedious, painstaking work to maintain the continuum of details in county proceedings. It still is, Provoncha said, taking particular care with the oldest records, maps, assignments and satisfactions.

“They are now scanned right into the computer,” Provoncha said of the system he’s developed. “That scan becomes the permanent record.”

Though thousands of Essex County property and business owners may not know it, his efforts steered a straight course from paper to digital records, which are as meticulously kept now as the old and fragile pages drawn in rich cursive over 200 years ago.

Essex County records in deeds and mortgages from 1790 forward are now entirely online. Assignments and satisfactions are now going online. Civil Court records from 2000 are online. Provoncha took on the county’s Supreme Court records as well.

“I was starting to preserve the school records, too,” he said, a process that requires collating various Superintendents’ Records from districts throughout the county.

“The superintendents were appointed by the county and they would turn their reports in to the county clerk. It is still a work in progress,” Provoncha said.

In his retirement, Provoncha is confident that the clerk’s office is in good hands. Stacey Hayes, principal records manager, sat in with us for the interview.

To date, she has scanned 7,000 maps.

“And I’m still going,” Hayes said. “We take these frail, fragile maps and scan them into a workable copy.”

“The abstractors really like it,” Provoncha said.

Some records are shredded after being digitized and reviewed.

“We do not shred any of our maps, right Joe?” Hayes said.

“That’s right,” he said.

“In nine-and-a-half years working for Joe, we’ve been through three map machines,” Hayes said. “As technology gets better, we also get better. And his constituents have been grateful for that.”

“I’ve never had a computer,” Provoncha said with a big smile, eyes twinkling.

“There was always someone in the office who needed a new one,” he laughed.

As County Clerk, Provoncha also led the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) into the technological age of online records and renewal. He established DMV satellite offices in Ticonderoga and was working on one in North Elba when COVID struck.

“The DMV window used to be in the old county building where the printing office is. It’s a big, narrow building,” Provoncha said.

He remembered one wintry day a woman came in wrapped in a heavy coat.

“And once in a while, her coat would pulse, near her shoulder. I’d look, and she didn’t say anything. Then finally a little dog appeared from under the coat,” he laughed.

“You have a dog in the coat, too?” he had asked. “She was trying to keep it warm.”

Merrihew has worked with Provoncha for 15 years. First hired in 2007 as a records management clerk, she was appointed Deputy County Clerk in 2019. And when Provoncha officially stepped back in November, she became acting county clerk, administrating both the clerk’s recording duties and DMV offices. She announced she will seek election to the post this year.

Provoncha never settled for record-keeping “the way it’s always been,” she said.

“He always volunteered to do the pilot projects when new technology was available. And it paid off. Compared to a lot of other county clerk’s offices, we were in a really good spot when COVID hit. We could seamlessly do the functions of our office electronically.

“Joe has always impressed me with his dedication to public service,” Merrihew said. “He always went above and beyond anything I’ve ever witnessed from someone in that kind of position. No matter how long he has done his job, he always loved it. It is inspiring. His legacy will live on for sure.”

DETAILS FROM THE PAST

With computer systems and online infrastructure coming at county record-keeping fast, Provoncha made it a point to punctuate the County Clerk’s Office with historic items, fetching the most elegant of details from the past.

It is not unusual to see an old tome, a unique and historic chair or lamp, or fragile items in glass cases situated near tables that the public can use for research.

The past is an important part of public discourse, Provoncha said.

With proper procedures, he said, “he or she preserves history as they look forward to the future. I put the computers in place; I have made systems modern. But our history can’t become lost. That is why I brought out so much of the old stuff.”

And it means a lot to residents who come in every day. They take notice.

“One of the nicest things we were ever given came from Edmund Morrette, of Ticonderoga. He was head of ABC (Alcohol and Beverage Control) from the 1930s to the ’50s.

“His district covered all restaurants, clubs and any place that sold alcohol. For records, he took photographs of all places he monitored across the whole county.”

The images were gifted for safekeeping to the County Clerk’s Office.

“Then one time, a lady who grew up in Schroon Lake came in and saw one of the photos. She recognized it and looked at me and said ‘growing up, I thought everybody’s living room had a jukebox,” Provoncha grinned.

“I laughed every day at the office.”

Odd twists and turns of history do affect everyday transactions, he said.

“Property use, property purchases, all trace back to those first surveys and assignments.”

REVENUE STREAM

The steadfast, detailed work at the Essex County Clerk’s Office added significant funds to county coffers. Provoncha’s 30-year tenure and tenacity helped the county grow.

“Because of the money the clerk’s office brought in, we were able to pay off the new courthouse without added cost to the taxpayers,” Provoncha said.

“We helped build the new emergency radio system with monies we brought in. And we are contributing to paying off the new Public Safety Building. We save taxpayers a lot of money.”

In addition to his duties as County Clerk, Provoncha has long been historian for the Town of North Hudson. Born and raised there, his father, Alvin Provoncha, worked on the Adirondack Northway, the Interstate road built to streamline travel through the Adirondacks.

“He used to take us snowmobiling on it before it opened up,” Provoncha chuckled.

His grandfather, Alvin Lee Provoncha, was caretaker of the Sharp Bridge Campsite, the first camping area built by New York State in the Adirondack Park. He remembers sleeping on a recliner on the porch of the caretaker’s cabin as a child, ready to fend off any bears or wild creatures that came to call.

He worked at Frontier Town throughout his youth, first as a busboy, then in the stockroom. He then worked in the town, donning a cowboy shirt for a uniform.

His very first job after graduating from the College of St. Rose was as a fourth-grade teacher before teaching English in the junior high at St. James.

Provoncha maintains his residence in North Hudson.

As seen in Sun Community News & Printing

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