With Digital Deeds, Do We Registries Need?

As registries of deeds increase their use of automation, especially document imaging, they could make themselves obsolete.

by / November 30, 1997
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, in one case so far, actual document retrieval via the World Wide Web [Government Technology, November 1997].

Closer is Better

Not everyone agrees that centralizing the administration of land records is a good idea. "I still believe the government that's closest to the people is the best government," said Duane Smith, past president of the National Association of County Recorders, Election Officials & Clerks and the county clerk for Minidoka County, Idaho. "For getting results, nothing beats having a locally elected official who is held accountable." Smith pointed out that a number of former county functions have been taken over by the Idaho state government, only to result in significant fee increases.

In Massachusetts, the state Senate has come out in favor of the transfer, but the House of Representatives is opposed, according to Gary Jones, a researcher for the state Legislature. "The House does not have an overwhelming concern for transferring the registries offices," he said. "The issue appears to be most important to big businesses located in Boston, not to the smaller businesses in the rest of the state." Jones pointed out that the vast majority of firms that transact business with the registries are local and have no compelling need to search for documents from around the state.

But proponents of the transfer believe change is inevitable and that technology is speeding the process. "Technology allows us to centralize the entire registry system for the first time," said State Senator Robert Hedlund, who has filed legislation to transfer all registries of deeds to the secretary of state.

It doesn't stop there, according to Hedlund. "Personally, I'd like to use technology to abolish the Department of Motor Vehicles, too. We don't need the DMV. Drivers should be able to visit any town or city hall and apply for or renew their licenses via computer."

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