Suffolk sells land records access

Suffolk County Clerk’s Office

A New York county clerk's office will soon be selling subscriptions to people who want to mine data about land records and other related transactions online and receive up-to-date property information via e-mails, cell phones or pagers.

About 100 individuals in Suffolk County, a diverse community on Long Island, N.Y., ranging from farmland to multi-million dollar estates, are currently on a waiting list to subscribe to the service that will be available in the next three months, said Peter Schlussler, director of information technology at the clerk's office.

Subscriptions starting at about $30 per day will allow users to query available land records databases, such as mortgages, foreclosures, deeds, judgments, Lis Pendens (or notices of pending action), liens, court actions and other related documents, he said. Monthly fees are about $600 and annual subscriptions will be about $6,000 to search all records. In addition, users will be charged a 65 cents-per-image download fee.

He projected subscriptions and additional fees could generate anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million annually, which could offset taxes.

The county clerk's office has provided free online land record documents since 2003 so homeowners could get copies of their deeds and other public record documents. There is also limited Internet index searching for judgments, liens and court minutes. One benefit of viewing online records is convenience. The office is physically located in a rural area called Riverhead, about 40 miles west of where most of the county’s population resides.

But he added this new subscription model would also allow users themselves to extract high-level information through data mining instead of relying on third parties or commercial firms that charge fees to essentially provide the same service.

He said he thinks it’s a step toward revolutionizing the real estate market with the county providing the service. For example, he said it usually takes at least two months to close on a house mainly because the buyers are trying to find out what the owners did to that house.

"Essentially what we've done at the county clerk is we created, if you will, a TRW report for those particular parcels of land in such a way that in real time or close to real time as possible," he said, referring to the credit agency. With the county clerk’s subscription, a user can theoretically obtain information about a property "up until five seconds ago in real time," he said.

Another benefit that individuals wouldn’t get through the free Web site or walking through the door is that they can get specific information about a land parcel or particular area in their neighborhood. Users can get information about a parcel identification number or provide a range of numbers on their cell phones, pagers, Blackberry devices or via e-mail.

"It's push technology," Schlussler said. "The moment that something occurs against that parcel whether it’s in the process of being foreclosed on or whether there’s a judgment against it or whether it recently changed ownership ... [you] will have the information way before anybody else would because essentially it's a real time recording system that I’m actually hitting against as far as the information."

The clerk’s office has about 10 million imaged and indexed documents in its database but will grow to about 40 million. Transactions since December 2000 immediately get imaged and indexed, but the county is doing the same to documents prior to that time. County land records date back to the 1600s, but businesses and individuals are traditionally only interested in 30 to 40 years of land record data, he said.

In recent years, the real estate market in Suffolk County, which is about 1,000 square miles in area, has exploded with the appreciation of homes and a population migration from New York City. Those factors have contributed to an increase in the county clerk’s workload. The office records about $1 billion a week in transactions.

The county was about four years into the document imaging project when Schlussler, who was a software engineer, was hired from the private sector about three years ago. At that time, a contractor was implementing an imaging system on top of an already inefficient, paper-laden process, which didn’t make sense, he said. With support from County Clerk Edward Romaine, Schlussler automated and improved the entire process as well as reduce the amount of paper to handle.

Schlussler used Costa Mesa, Calif.-based FileNet’s enterprise content and business process management technology with an Oracle relational database integrating 13 previous separate data silos.

Essentially he extracted data from the legacy systems loading it into the Oracle database housed in a Sun Microsystems Solaris operating system that is interfaced with FileNet's technology, which is essentially the centerpiece. Images are located in a Magnetic Storage and Retrieval and Optical Storage and Retrieval systems, which have about two terabyte capacity. The network is one gigabyte to accommodate the large number of images that are processed. All images are replicated to microfilm for disaster recovery purposes and technology stabilization along with backup systems, he added.

He added that his office makes a conscious effort to protect the privacy of individuals. He said a lot of records have Social Security numbers and dates of birth listed, which are redacted through a process. The office is not obligated to redact anything since it’s a public record but with identify theft a real issue, he said it's good practice.

Schlussler said other county clerk's offices nationwide provide service within the mandate of the law, but Suffolk County’s office wanted to take it a step further with the goal to offset taxes. Other clerk's offices "look at the systems they have in place within the four walls that house the records. Basically they just make that available on the Web," he said.

"But to employ push technology, as far as integrating the databases and generating revenue, I haven’t seen anything out there," he said.

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