After months of speculation and suspicion, the Waldo County Commissioners met with the man who is seeking the entire electronic contents of the county’s registry of deeds.

“I hope you can see I don’t actually have horns growing out of my head, as I have been portrayed by some people,” John Simpson, owner of MacImage of Maine told a room full of county officials Jan. 12.

In a letter dated Sept. 28, Simpson requested “access to inspect and copy all land records available on the registry website,” including indexing data and all scanned documents and plans. The request followed a Sept. 1 Hancock County Superior Court justice’s ruling that documents in Registry of Deeds offices throughout Maine are public. The case, MacImage of Maine v. Hancock County, ostensibly cleared the way for a private vendor to offer access to deeds throughout the state.

County commissioners around the state viewed the ruling as a threat to revenue collected from photocopies of land documents. Typically, registries charge between 50 cents and $2 per page. The Waldo County registry charges $1 to $2 per page and collects around $60,000 annually in photocopy fees, a figure that includes both in-person and Web requests.

On Tuesday, Simpson sought to dispel the perception that he is looking to profit from a loophole in the Freedom of Access Act. Rather, he said he hopes to make land records around the state easier to access under an arrangement that will be benefit records users, MacImage and county governments alike.

Currently, there is no single repository for the state’s land records. Each of the 16 counties has its own Web site, and these, Simpson explained, are managed by five different vendors. Individual subscriber fees vary from one to another, as do login protocols.

“You can see what I’m saying,” he said. “It’s a cumbersome process for people who do this work every day.”

Simpson gave the sale of Verizon to Fairpoint, and Central Maine Power projects that cross multiple counties as cases when one group would benefit from searching multiple databases. Beyond ease of use for heavy users, Simpson speculated that a simplified system would draw more requests from realtors and other parties who occasionally need land records but might not be willing to pay multiple subscription fees.

In the short term, the county would stand to lose $35,000 in fees from Web requests, but Simpson said that for the first two years he would reinvest his profits from the sale of Waldo County deeds into digitizing the county’s records. The county would lose the revenue but would receive some benefit, he said. After several years, he said, it would be conceivable that he could share revenue equivalent to what the county now collects, leaving a similar profit margin for MacImage. He would do this by expanding the number of users.

“Those subscription fees add up. The pie grows if you can bring those people in,” he said. Simpson said he would hope that eventually the county would hire MacImage as its records manager.

Waldo County Register of Deeds Deloris Page presented the commissioners with a draft fee schedule under which the county would charge MacImage $0.13 per page for the county’s 359,000 documents and 940,000 images. Page qualified the bottom line, saying that another calculation had yielded a figure of $0.28 per page. The proposal included a breakdown of every expense related to the registry, including staff salaries, the cost of paper and toner and service contracts for the fax and copy machines.

“Do you count electricity? Do you count utilities?” she asked. Simpson said the Hancock County case indicated that his request should be handled consistently with other FOAA requests, and therefore would not include the cost of overhead.

Commissioner Donald Berry asked Simpson why he had used the FOAA request to essentially file a competitive bid for the county’s electronic records management contract.

“It seems like [you] have a business [you are] trying to promote,” Berry said. “Come to me with a contract and a proposal. You haven’t brought me a contract, you haven’t brought me a proposal, and yet the county may have no choice in the end but to do business.”

Simpson said he would submit a proposal. The reason he had resorted to the FOAA request, he said, was that he had repeatedly tried the traditional channels. “Every single time the door has been shut in my face, at best,” he said. Simpson said he believed some other counties had rejected his bids because it was easier for them to work with their standing vendor, even if it ended up costing them much more money to do so.

Simpson acknowledged that the FOAA request was confrontational. “It just seems like one of these situations where you can’t win,” he said. “I felt like it was give up, or do something that might upset some people, but at least I’d have the door open and maybe I could smooth out some of those hard feelings.”

To date, Simpson said, Waldo County is the second county in the state to be receptive to his proposal. Berry said he wanted to see multiple proposals from Simpson. “Make those multiple proposals available to us. We will consider them,” he said.