For more than 200 years, the offices of the Registry of Deeds have been a function of county government in the commonwealth of Massachusetts. That may soon change if the state Legislature goes along with a recommendation made last spring: The 21 Registry of Deeds offices, located in 14 counties, will be transferred to the secretary of state's office.

While the state gives several reasons why the transfer is needed, one catalyst for making such a sweeping change is document imaging. Currently, half of the registries in Massachusetts have installed document imaging to store and retrieve land records.

Under the control of the secretary of state, all registries could become automated and networked, allowing customers to search for and view documents statewide. "Businesses would be able to research land records of any county from one location," said Jack McCarthy, chief of staff for the secretary of state. "We would have one-stop shopping of deeds."

But for that to happen, the state faces the uphill task of integrating a host of incompatible, proprietary imaging systems before such a service could be available, and acceptance of such a transfer is far from unanimous. Some legislators and government officials are opposed to the transfer and have raised concerns about the benefits of such a move, since most businesses that use the registries are local to the area and would have no need to view deeds on a statewide basis.

Fighting Obselescence

The state's registries received and processed 1.5 million documents in 1996, generating nearly $110 million in revenue. But while some registries have been able to finance the latest in technology to record, store and retrieve land documents, other registries lack the funds to automate and must rely on paper and manual labor. That inconsistency troubles some businesses and government officials who believe that Massachusetts needs a uniform and standardized land records system to serve today's high-tech business environment.

More troubling is the uncertain future of county government in Massachusetts. Former Gov. William Weld introduced a bill this year to abolish the centuries-old system of local government. "Over the last three centuries, counties have become obsolete, inward-looking bureaucracies, with dozens of departments and department heads that really serve themselves and not the taxpayers," Weld said when he signed a bill that gave the state control of two bankrupt counties. Massachusetts has already abolished one county and taken control of the main functions of another.

One of the counties the state will take over, as of July 1, 1998, is Hampden County, located in the western part of Massachusetts. Donald E. Ashe, register of deeds for Hampden County, said he's all for the state taking over the registries. "Because of the financial constraints of the majority of the counties, it's very difficult for registries to stay on the cutting edge of technology."

According to Ashe, Hampden's registry has been able to install document imaging and other technologies, despite the fact that the county has not had a budget to work with for six years. But he's worried about the registry's ability to stay current with technological advances. "Whatever we have today, in five years from now, it's going to be obsolete," he pointed out.

Just how the secretary of state's office will standardize the technology of the state's registries remains unclear. Currently, the secretary's office has a network with all 351 municipalities in Massachusetts by virtue of its implementation of the federal "Motor Voter" law, which requires that states allow any driver applying for or renewing a license to register to vote at the same time. The secretary's office believes it can easily expand the network to provide a link to the 21 registry offices.

Another possibility is to provide access to registry databases and documents via the Internet. Already, registries around the country are offering or plan to offer database access and,