CUMBERLAND — John Simpson envisions a one-stop Web site in which a researcher can access land records from across the state.
The Cumberland company for which he serves as general manager, MacImage of Maine, plans to expand its registryofdeeds.com Web site from its current offering of Hancock County records to include deeds, liens and mortgage records filed in the registries of deeds for all 16 counties.
Simpson said that while all Maine counties have made their land records available on Web sites in recent years, no single site offers quick and efficient access to all Maine land records. This is a problem for people conducting statewide property searches or requiring copies of land records from multiple counties, he explained, noting that those researchers might have to create accounts with up to 16 different sites, each with its own fee structure.
“We try to make things simple,” Simpson said.
“A year ago we had 4,000 individual people using our Web site for just Hancock County,” he said. “… My guess is there’s 10,000 or 12,000 different people that use registry Web sites statewide. So that’s a lot of people that could benefit by having something like this.”
According to a press release issued last week about MacImage’s plans, a recent Maine Superior Court decision made it possible for the company to acquire copies of all the electronic records it requires to establish a statewide registry Web site. The court ruled in MacImage of Maine v. Hancock County that Maine registries of deeds documents are public records under the meaning of the Freedom of Access Law; as a result, Maine counties cannot bar MacImage from acquiring copies of those records at a reasonable cost.
MacImage plans to obtain copies of recorded documents from every registry of deeds office in Maine and then offer access to those records on its Web site. While there will be no cost to search for and view documents on the site, site users will have to buy copies, although Simpson expects that fee to be lower than the fees charged by the counties.
MacImage now charges 75 cents per page to print Hancock County documents.
The extra revenue MacImage may realize through this service could mean a significant loss of revenue for Maine counties if researchers use his company’s service instead of county Web sites, Simpson acknowledged. Still, he said, MacImage plans to share income from the statewide Web site with counties and offer other means to offset lost county revenues.
“We can work on a variety of levels to try to address the financial issues for (the counties), and if we do, that may affect the pricing (of copies),” Simpson said. “My guess is that it’ll be in the same ballpark as we are now … I will be strongly trying to encourage counties to go with a standard price. That’s part of the benefit of having this, is to have one system, one price.”
Simpson said he would like to meet with county officials soon in order to talk about his company’s plans and the benefits of a statewide Web site. He said he would like the revenue sharing to ensure that his company and the counties maintain a good working relationship; in which, for example, he receives complete copies of records on a daily basis.
Pamela Lovley, register of deeds for Cumberland County, said on Monday that she had not heard from Simpson and could not comment on his plans. She said her office charges $1.50 per page, and that all the revenue derived from the copies stays within the county.
“It’s not to make money from our taxpayers,” Lovley said. “It’s the cost of doing business.”
Barbara Trott, Sagadahoc County registrar of deeds, said the potential loss of revenue is a concern. The revenue from the copies helps fund the operation of the office, she said.
Trott said her office takes in between $35,000 and $40,000 a year in copy fees, and that larger counties earn hundreds of thousands of dollars.
She also expressed concern that if a mistake were found and corrected in a land record at the county level after Simpson had obtained it, his company would be offering incorrect information.
Simpson said that part of his company’s Freedom of Access request includes a list of all records that have changed, and that the county’s systems include a flag in their database when a record is changed.
“My goal is to create a win-win situation for all involved,” he explained. “One Web site that provides efficient access to land records statewide will be a great benefit to several thousand people whose work includes researching property records. There are definitely ways to accomplish this goal which protect or improve the financial bottom line for Maine counties.”
Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or firstname.lastname@example.org.