Document firm expands search for deeds in all 16 Maine counties

Posted Sept. 28, 2009, at 7:39 p.m.

ELLSWORTH, Maine — A firm that sued Hancock County over the price it charges for copies of its deed-related documents has sent similar Freedom of Access law requests to all other 15 counties in Maine.

MacImage of Maine, based in Cumberland, plans to make copies of official deed documents from every county in Maine available on its Web site.

In 2008, MacImage filed a request under Maine’s Freedom of Access Law with Hancock County to obtain electronic copies of documents filed in its Registry of Deeds. The county said it would provide MacImage with the copies it requested but told the company it would have to pay $1.50 per page, which is the same rate the general public pays for electronic and paper copies.

That’s when MacImage took Hancock County to court. Because of the volume of documents requested by MacImage, the company claimed that rate effectively made the firm’s access to the public documents financially prohibitive. Instead, the company claimed, the county should charge only enough to recover its cost in pro-ducing the copies, which in electronic form cost virtually nothing.

Earlier this month, a judge in Cumberland County Superior Court ruled in MacImage’s favor and ordered Hancock County to provide the copies at cost.

On Friday, MacImage sent out similar FOA requests for documents to every other county in the state. The letters cite the court decision in making the company’s request for copies.

John Simpson, owner of MacImage, said Monday that he is not sure how other counties will respond to the FOA requests. He said he hopes at least some of them will react to the court decision by providing copies at cost.

“I don’t know how well it will be received,” Simpson said. “It seemed like [filing FOA requests] was the best way to go [in obtaining the documents].”

According to Simpson, selling copies of the public records through his company’s Web site will be beneficial to the public because it will provide one-stop shopping for people who access such records for work, such as land surveyors and title researchers. Visitors will be able to search for and view records on the MacImage Web site at no charge, he said.

Without one such Web site to use, Simpson said, people have to travel from county seat to county seat or learn how to use multiple different systems on multiple county Web sites. And, he said, they have to pay different rates for copies in each county.

Robert Howe, executive director of the Maine County Commissioners Association, said Monday that MacImage is entitled to copies of deeds-related records in every county in Maine.

But the recent court decision is not binding in any other county except Hancock County, he said, and counties should be allowed to charge reasonable fees for copies of public documents. Taxpayers should not have to bear all the costs of running county registry of deeds departments, he said.

Howe said he has not researched what counties charge for copies, but in principle the association supports the current practice of allowing counties to determine what their rates should be.

“I think a user fee is appropriate,” Howe said. “I am sure the counties will comply” with the FOA requests.

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