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Decoding Government

You're standing at the counter at el Departamento de Migración in Nuevo Laredo, and the man in uniform wants to see your birth certificate before issuing a turista pass into México's interior.

Your spouse died and you need to prove it by producing a death certificate to collect the millions of dollars he or she willed to you.

Or maybe you just got hired for that high-wage job as a welder in Saudi Arabia, but you have to take about 30 inoculations to prevent malaria, distemper, or the plague before you depart. Of course you're sure you have had some of these painful shots. But where the hell is that immunization record?

How many times have you had to drive downtown, jockey for a scarce parking space, and stroll into the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District office and say, "I need a copy of my birth certificate"?

Nine months ago, the city made the search for proof of life less painful when it moved the vital statistics department into the George Whitfield Jr. Municipal Records Facility, 719 S. Santa Rosa.

All you have to do now is take a number and find a seat in a clean, well-lighted waiting room while clerks retrieve your paperwork. The hours are 7:45 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Parking is ample - and free.

"What is stored here? You name it," said Fernando Flores, San Antonio's municipal records manager. "We microfilm permanent records, birth and death, for example. We keep records from different city departments. We retrieved documents that were previously stored in basements, and we inventoried and bar coded building plans and entered them into a computer."

Flores said the service came in handy when the Karotkin Building façade collapsed last year. The city's Development Services Department retrieved and reviewed the original building plans to determine the cause of the accident.

You can also use the local office to get copies of records from other parts of Texas through the Bureau of Vital Statistics in Austin. If you were born in Cut and Shoot, Texas, and need a record, the local office can retrieve it.

Birth certificates cost $11 for the first copy, and $3 for each additional one. Death records cost $9 for the first copy. If the local office has to go through Austin, the records cost an additional $1.83.

Flores said the city's storage facility is capable of issuing 50,000 to 60,000 birth records, and up to 95,000 death certificates each year.

The storage facility, formerly a Wayne Bull Auto Parts Co. warehouse, has about 100,000 cubic feet of storage space in its air-conditioned buildings.

Documents can be stored according to state statute until they can be destroyed or scanned into a computer system. Currently, various city departments are going through boxes of paperwork to determine what needs to reside at the vital records office.

More than 20,000 building plans for various companies can be researched by name, such as McDonalds or Sonic, and staffers can find it all at once.

Flores warns that city department employees should be careful of sending piles of paper they want out of the way to the municipal facility. "Departments need to give us accurate information before storing a product. Consider it as a library. This is not a warehouse where you can put your junk."

Surely you can sleep better at night, knowing your vital statistics are stored in a cool, dry place. •

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