ELLSWORTH, Maine — A jury verdict in a civil trial has forced Hancock County to pay $75,000 to a private company that helped the county make its registry of deeds documents available online.
MacImage of Maine filed lawsuits against the county last year over the pay issue and over whether the $1.50-per-page fee the county charges for copies of its deed records is unlawfully excessive. A jury decided 7-2 last week after a four-day civil trial in Cumberland County Superior Court that Hancock County owed MacImage $71,000 in back pay, plus interest. The trial was held in Cumberland County because MacImage is based in the town of Cumberland.
The decision did not address the issue of whether the county can charge MacImage $1.50 per page for electronic documents. People involved in the case said Thursday that the issue of the electronic copy fee, which MacImage claims violates Maine’s Freedom of Access laws, is expected to be decided by Justice Thomas Warren in the coming weeks.
In the meantime, MacImage has an injunction that temporarily prohibits the county from assessing the fee for copies it provides MacImage.
MacImage provided online document services to the county’s registry of deeds for nearly 10 years, including managing the county’s deeds Web site, until last fall. The county now manages its own deeds Web site, while MacImage maintains its own separate site. MacImage, which has its own database of the county’s deed records, charges its online users 75 cents per page for copies of those documents.
In court, MacImage sought more than $300,000 overall from the county not only for work it had done, but for subsequent electronic imaging and management work that the county awarded to a New York firm. MacImage claims that the county denied it the chance to bid on a $250,000 contract that was awarded to the other firm. The decision to hire the other firm without informing MacImage of the decision violated a binding agreement MacImage had with the county, MacImage argued.
According to Cynthia Deprenger, Hancock County’s clerk, the jury ruled that the county did not owe MacImage the additional $250,000.
John Simpson, MacImage’s owner, said Thursday that he believes MacImage was promised the work that went to the other firm. Justice Warren, who presided over the jury trial, ruled that the promise was not binding if there was not unanimous written support of that promise from the county commissioners, Simpson said.
Simpson said he felt he had a better chance at being paid $71,000 for the work MacImage had done than for the $250,000 worth of work he felt it had been promised.
“I knew the second part of it would boil down to a ‘he said, she said’ kind of thing,” the MacImage owner said. “We’re not going to appeal the decision. I’m done with this. At least we got paid for the work we did.”
The county argued that it already had paid MacImage everything it was owed and that it was not obliged to pay the firm any more money or to offer it any more work.
Percy “Joe” Brown, chairman of the Hancock County commissioners, said Thursday that he disagreed with the jury’s decision that the county owed MacImage $71,000.
“I’m a little disappointed we lost,” Brown said. “We operated in good faith with MacImage.”
According to Deprenger, the county paid Simpson the day after the verdict. With the accrued interest, the total amount that was owed was $75,071.74, she said.
Deprenger said that to maintain an electronic database of deed records, the county has to purchase computer equipment and power, maintain that equipment, and pay people to manage the database. If the court determines that state law bars the county from charging $1.50 per copy for electronic documents, she said, it could have significant economic repercussions for every county in the state.
“It opens a big, wide door,” she said. “It will definitely affect the county’s revenue stream.”
According to Simpson, state law has conflicting statutes over the issue of copies of deed records. One says that counties can set the fees they charge for copies of documents, but the state’s Freedom of Access law says that government officials cannot charge fees for copies of public records that exceed their costs for providing those copies.
“We think FOA trumps that. We’ll see what happens,” Simpson said. “We’ve got thousands of people who use [our] Web site and we’d like to continue serving them.”