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Property records becoming a gold mine

Surveyor Kevin Lindow, at middle, was among those who asked that a propsed fee structure to download property records online be kept reasonable. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

Hubbard County will implement a fee system for retrieval of online land records, in part to protect a valuable commodity and to protect taxpayers' interests.

The county has subscribed to an online program that makes public property records such as locations and deeds more accessible.

But the value of the database is increasing exponentially as more records are added, said Hubbard County Recorder Nicole Lueth.

"Large multinational corporations mine our data, they purchase subscriptions to us and they log in and come in maybe once a week and they print off every single document we recorded for the week," Lueth said. "They're not like the local companies that hop in, do a search on whatever property they're working on, they're coming in and stripping everything.

"Some of them are shipping them (the records) offshore. We just heard of one that was sending it off to the Philippines and they're having foreign individuals going through these documents and indexing them," she said.

"So they're pulling all sorts of information off like document number, date, time, grantor, grantee, consideration and they're pulling 80-85 fields off a document and they put this information into reports and they sell it to large nationwide data processors on Wall Street like Reuters, who compile reports and turn around and sell it for demographics and trends to large companies."

The county sought to implement fee structures so that local abstract companies and other businesses can have access to the records.

Some of those local business owners came to a public hearing Wednesday to give input on a pricing strategy. Online records have been available since 2004.

"We had a program called Laredo and that is what is ending right now," Lueth said. "We're moving to a new program with a new vendor called iDOCMarket."

Laredo had raised its prices, so the county started looking for a new vendor.

"Public records by statute are open to the public free of charge," Lueth said. "Anyone can come in my office during regular business hours and look at anything they want for free.

"This is an enhanced service not required by statute that allows you to look at it from your home or office," Lueth said. "It costs money to have the people, the firewalls and the software put together to be able to do this so it's worth charging an enhanced service fee for."

Now, three tiers of memberships will be offered, to the casual user, to the moderate user and to the heavy users.

"For us it's a necessary cost of doing business but I can't pass it on to my customers," said surveyor Kevin Lindow.

Two of the tiers would charge per copy for the records besides a monthly membership fee.

In Lindow's case, he said he'd see an increase of 246 percent if the cost per copy was implemented.

Other users of the records said the county might become inundated with personal requests at the counter for the records if the download fees become egregious.

Lueth agreed.

"The tradeoff is that the less people we have coming in here, the less people we can get away with (staffing the office,)" she said. "So it's a win-win."

But Lueth said Hubbard County commissioners are reluctant to charge the public for records on a scale commensurate with other counties.

"There are many counties that charge what they charge in-house to purchase a record plus an additional $400 or $500 a month to subscribe," she said. "Our board has never been willing to look at those types of fees, which is fine. We're not here to make money."

The agreed upon fee structure would sell a "Quick Pass" to those who want to download a single deed, a $50 monthly plan for moderate users and a $150 monthly plan for heavier users. The latter two monthly plans would offer unlimited searching and viewing, but charge for prints after 2,500, which would then cost 50 cents per page.

"We had never adjusted our prices since we made this live in 2004," Lueth said.

The records were nominally priced "when it had less than one year of data on it. Now we have everything on it. We go back to the 1800s, so it's much more usable than it ever was."

And much more valuable to telemarketers.

"It's our business to take care of taxpayers, not drain money from them," board chair Dick Devine said. "But we have to control people from the outside."

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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