The paper chase

County faces shortage of specialized paper needed for vital records

Experts have warned about the scarcity of water in California for years, but nobody predicted the state would run short of another essential commodity: paper.

“I never thought I’d have to bring this topic up, but its a very serious issue,” Butte County Chief Administrative Officer Paul Hahn said at the Tuesday (Aug. 11) Board of Supervisors meeting as he announced the surprising situation, which was also the subject of a county press release later that day.

Hahn explained that the specialized paper required by California law to print certain legal documents—primarily birth, death and marriage certificates—is in short supply after the nation’s main supplier unexpectedly went out of business recently. The business, Ohio-based Northern Bank Note Co., stopped sending supplies and returning phone calls made from the California State Registrar more than two months ago, according to an Aug. 11 article in The Sacramento Bee. The company’s website, which boasts that the business has been in operation since 1891, is still functional. Calls to the company are answered by an automated message.

The paper in question is commonly known as bank note paper, and is printed using the “intaglio” printing process required by the state of California’s Health and Safety Code Section 103526.5 to ensure vital documents are not easily counterfeited. In intaglio printing, ink is deposited in lines cut into the paper, rather than on top. State law requires the paper also contain certain fibers and the documents be printed with specialized borders, bar codes and raised lettering that was done at the Ohio company. Several other states also require the paper for these documents.

“We’re not alone in this, and even the state itself is going to be affected by the shortage,” Hahn said.

Recent news reports confirm that Stanislaus and Orange counties are also feeling the paper pinch.

“It sounds like a minor problem,” Hahn continued, “but when someone passes away, generally you need multiple copies of the death certificate to get Social Security payments, veterans’ benefit payments, or anything like that.”

Hahn said Butte’s paper situation is made even more severe because the county intentionally hasn’t resupplied recently in anticipation of changes to the two local agencies that need the paper. The Clerk-Recorder’s Office will soon be moving to the new Hall of Records after construction is completed next month, and the Department of Public Health has a new logo.

The paper shortage announcement prompted some giggles from the audience and a quip from the supervisors’ dais: “So, are we just going to put an ad in the paper that you can’t get married or die in this county?” Supervisor Bill Connelly asked Hahn.

“We’re going to be very careful on how we distribute death certificates, marriage certificates and things of that sort until we figure this out,” Hahn said of the county’s short-term strategy. To that end, the county is issuing only one copy of these certificates until a new source of the paper is found, a measure that has also taken effect in other counties. County staff is appealing to school districts, which require a copy of legal birth certificates for registration, to temporarily accept alternatives. Hahn also said California lawmakers, who reconvene next week, may have to pass special legislation to address the problem if a new distributor isn’t found soon.

According to the Aug. 6 Orange County Register, that county is currently negotiating with Canadian Bank Note Paper Co. for new supplies.