A request by a for-profit company seeking the entire digitized contents of the county’s registry of deeds should be viewed with some skepticism, and we don’t fault the Waldo County commissioners for initially balking at a request last fall by MacImage of Maine for just that — the entire contents of the registry’s electronic land records database. But far from pursuing an end-run around local government, MacImage owner John Simpson seems to have bent over backwards to make the change beneficial to Waldo and the other 15 counties he has approached.

In September 2009 a Hancock County Superior Court justice handed down a ruling that appeared to vindicate Simpson’s efforts to gain access to that county’s electronic records. Armed with a verdict, Simpson could have bullied his way into the registries of other counties using the Freedom of Access Act as a shield against criticism. But he hasn’t done that.

If anything, Simpson has shown himself more than willing to negotiate. His original FOAA request legally required the county to comply within five days. Seven months later, he could be forgiven for throwing up his hands and digging in for a fight. Instead, Simpson continues to say that he will share the profits from this proposed arrangement, his portion of which he will reinvest in digitizing the county’s records until that process is complete.

We have no doubt that Simpson is motivated by what could be a big payday once the system is established, but he will have earned it. We agree with his assessment that the state’s land records should be accessible from a single database, and the catalog of electronic records should be complete. And we tend to agree with his projection that a more complete and easily accessible database will bring in more business from realtors and other parties who don’t presently use the registry enough to warrant a subscription. We have no doubt that the county will want the entire contents of the registry digitized a some point in the near future, and Simpson has offered to split the cost.

This week, the commissioners settled on an offer: a bulk sales rate of 4.5 cents for a single page document and 2.5 cents for each additional page. Using Simpson’s estimate that the average document would run three pages, the cost per document comes to 9.5 cents, or more than $23,000 for the roughly 250,000 land records currently in the county’s electronic database. Simpson, however, thinks he should pay something in the range of $1,200 in order to copy everything.

The discrepancy lies in the two different views taken on the same issue. While the county commissioners are thinking about the value of each document, Simpson is basing his estimate on the labor and materials required to do a data transfer.

County officials have cited the costs of compiling and maintaining the registry as justification for charging a per-document fee to Simpson, but these have been paid through fees over the years. Last year the registry made more than its entire $226,000 operating budget from a combination of fees, transfer tax and interest. Roughly $75,000 of that revenue came from sales of copies of land records. An agreement with MacImage might cut into these profits for several years, but we believe Simpson has presented a good case that the benefits down the road will outweigh the upfront costs. If that’s not enough of an incentive, it appears that Simpson is willing to return to court — a move that would cost taxpayers money and probably still result in MacImage’s gaining access to the registry.