Passport security concerns put squeeze on municipal services

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HARPSWELL — A change in federal law governing handling of passport applications is causing problems for some towns, and may cost them thousands of dollars in income.

The change prevents offices that provide certified copies of birth certificates from also processing passport applications. In Maine, many town and city clerks’ offices are the only places where passport applications can be accepted and processed before being sent to the U.S. State Department for approval.

A recent federal study revealed the ease of obtaining fraudulent passports based on fake documentation, including birth certificates, and led to the decision to separate the two functions. May is the deadline to move or eliminate the passport application locations.

Harpswell and Freeport are ahead of the curve.

Harpswell officials have decided to pass along responsibility for passport applications to the deputy tax collector beginning Jan. 31 or Feb. 1, according to Town Clerk Rosalind Knight. Deputy Tax Collector Jill Caldwell has already completed updated training.

“We can’t issue them out of the town clerk’s office because we issue birth certificates,” Knight said.

Knight said Harpswell handles about 100 passport applications per year.

Passport application services will shift to the library in Freeport, but the date has yet to be determined, Town Clerk Beverly Curry said. Until the shift occurs, people should continue to bring applications to the town clerk’s office.

Other towns and cities have just started discussing what they’ll do, including Brunswick, South Portland and Portland.

Brunswick Deputy Town Clerk Ellen Gould said there is no plan in place to transfer passport applications to another department, although discussions are continuing.

She said employees have completed the new training requirements by attending a class in Boston, which teaches passport application handlers such things as the placement of staples and how to identify fraudulent documentation.

“It’s very strict,” Gould said.

Brunswick handled more than 350 passport applications last year, she said, bringing about $10,000 in revenue to the town. She said the service has been offered through the town clerk’s office since 1998 and was the first location in Brunswick to do so.

In South Portland, Town Clerk Susan Mooney said a letter is being drafted to send to U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe requesting grandfathered status.

“We’re going to have to give it up or move it to another department,” she said. “I’m not sure what we’re going to do at this point. We would love to be able to continue the service at a convenient location.”

Mooney said South Portland handles about 500 passport applications per year and will continue to offer the service in the town clerk’s office until another solution is found.

Portland will continue to offer passport services in the city clerk’s office until May 1, Clerk Linda Cohen said. Other departments are being surveyed about taking over, but one has not been chosen.

“It’s too bad, it’s been a good service,” Cohen said, adding Portland receives about $20,000 in revenue from passport applications each year.

Yarmouth will no longer provide passport application processing, Deputy Tax Collector Sue Swanson said. Currently, there are three people, including Swanson, trained to process passport applications, but talks with other town departments failed to reach a solution.

“When the deadline hits, we’re done,” she said.

Swanson said residents will be referred elsewhere after the deadline in May.

There are several locations that provide passport application processing services that will not impacted by the new law because they do not have access to certified copies of birth certificates.

All post offices in Cumberland County that currently offer passport services will continue to do so, as will Sagadahoc County Probate Court in Bath and Prince Memorial Library in Cumberland.