that runs the image processing software, Open/Image, from Wang.
Prior to imaging, the county stored its land records on microfiche. A handful of title companies paid the county a flat rate for paper copies of all land records filed each month. According to Walt Przybylowski, director of information and communication services for Kenosha County, the service was laborious to run and costly in terms of maintaining the microfiche lab.
Shortly after the imaging system was installed, the county purchased Pinnacle Micro's RCD1000 double-speed CD-ROM drive for $1,375 and began offering the title companies the digitized land records on magnetic tape or CD-ROM discs for $500 per month. The CD-ROM discs contain about 2,000 land documents or 8,000 pages. They also contain a small program that allows the user to search for documents by index, view the documents and print them. Przybylowski said the service is generating about $48,000 in revenue annually. Plans are under way to offer customers a fax-back service, as well as other digitized documents, such as plat maps, in a CD-ROM format.
"We're adding value here," said Przybylowski, commenting on the county's attitude toward its fee structure for the new services. "I'm sure we could get more customers if we could market better," he added.
Policy issues concerning the types of fees a county should charge for these new services, as well as management issues about how to market these services, are two of the key stumbling blocks many government agencies run into when they consider operating a revenue-based service for businesses. Should local governments charge more for electronic access to the information? The question seems to quickly become an issue over freedom of information, according to Michael Humphrey, business director for telecommunications and information at Public Technology Inc. "The way to make information as public as possible is through an electronic format," he said. "But you have to charge a fee to do that, otherwise there's no benefit."
Local governments argue that by charging higher fees for electronic access to certain types of information, they are forcing the relatively small group of customers who use the service to pay for it. But Humphrey said that all too often when counties ask state legislatures to change existing policies on fees for electronic access, the media and special interest groups turn it into an argument for freedom of information which only clouds the issue. "Whether or not to charge for electronic access should depend on the type of information," said Humphrey. "Public access is essential to government policy information, such as city council records, and should be available at no cost. However, some information, such as land records, which counties basically maintain for lawyers and title companies, is not essential for public access."
As for marketing an electronic service, local government experience is extremely limited. Successful marketing requires that government agencies conduct research to determine the customer base, its location, its size and the amount of money it is willing to spend for the services the agency plans to offer.
To overcome this lack of knowledge and marketing know-how, a few local governments have turned to private-sector partners to provide these services and, in return, have agreed to share some of the revenue. But Humphrey cautioned that this approach has its problems. "Private companies see a risk in whether or not a county can uphold such an agreement for the long term. They are afraid that at some point in the future, the public will demand free access to the documents, killing any profit."