What a difference a decade has made to recording offices! When I was appointed as director of Broward County (FL) Records Division in 1991, the only automation in the office was an antiquated Sperry indexing system. All recording functions were performed manually, including fee calculations. The clerk’s file number was applied using a mechanical stamp, which had to be manually advanced. Known as the "Go-On," this was the most important piece of equipment in the office and had to be passed from hand to hand, often leaving five or six other recording clerks and their customers waiting impatiently for someone to finish stamping a set of documents.
Unlike most typical recording offices around the country which are either separate elected offices or subsections of the Clerk of Courts, Broward County’s Recording Division is part of the Department of Finance and Administrative Services, reporting to the Board of County Commissioners. My appointment to the director of records position came about not because of my law degree or real property experience (I didn’t have any real property experience, having been a family law practitioner), but because I was technologically inclined and had recently overseen the successful automation of the county’s Support Enforcement Division. Because I am appointed, I am fortunate not to have many of the political considerations faced by my elected counterparts, making it somewhat easier for me to focus on single issues. I clearly understood that my primary mission was to automate the division and attempt to increase efficiencies while reducing operating costs.
Recording offices, no matter where they reside on the organizational chart, are generally regarded as cash cows. In FY 2000, Broward County Records Division generated $9,280,086 in General Fund revenue and had expenses of $3,948,748. The excess revenues produced are used to help finance other important government services.
Not many people in government accord much importance to the actual recording function and few understand the true economic impact on the community of the work performed in the recording office. Consequently, it is often difficult to convince budgetary authorities to reinvest revenues to improve staffing or service levels in the recording office. It is essential for people in all facets of the real property industry to understand this dynamic, so they will be motivated to partner with recorders
to bring about necessary changes, especially when recording office work is backlogging. It is essential to make budgetary authorities understand why time is of the essence in recording real property documents, so sufficient resources will be allocated to the task. Recorders and real property industry people have to understand each other’s problems and work together to solve them.
Faced with exploding workloads and inadequate staffing levels, I actively sought ways to more economically and effectively deliver services through the use of technology, but was ill-prepared for the hurdles my organization had to face. I soon learned that virtually none of the staff had even rudimentary keyboarding skills. We had to truly start at the beginning and arrange for staff to have typing classes and time to practice. We began to document workflow and develop business systems requirements, all the while, working massive amounts of overtime and worrying about mounting backlogs. Our first computer system failed miserably due to flawed database design, adding to our woes, but we persevered because we believed that technology was the ultimate way to solve our problems. Much effort was devoted to staff training, process re-engineering, customer service, and communications. Our new computer system was implemented and we eliminated our backlogs, at last finding the time to be creative and innovative. Our efforts and the visible drastic improvements they produced were recognized by corporate and professional customers and led to an invitation to participate in an exciting pilot program for electronic recording.
On July 25, 2000, the Broward County Records Division participated in the first paperless, fully electronic mortgage loan and home purchase in the United States. The county was part of a partnership with representatives from Mortgage.com, e- Cloz.com, Enterprise Title, Inc., NewVision Systems Corporation, Attorneys’ Title Insurance Fund, Irwin Mortgage, and Fannie Mae.
The process began with a mortgage originated, underwritten, processed and approved, using online lending tools. At the closing, the borrower applied an electronic signature, which was notarized in like manner, and the agent, using a password and pin number, signed into the county’s Web server and uploaded the documents to be recorded. The files transmitted to the county were in XML and TIFF formats and were wrapped with a digital signature to ensure integrity.
The county’s Public Records Imaged Data Enterprise (PRIDE) System automatically performed various checks to ensure the integrity of the transmission, recordability, data, and fee calculations. Fees and taxes associated with the electronic recordings were automatically debited from the agent’s previously established escrow account. The escrow agent, using the assigned PIN number, had the additional benefit of viewing and reconciling the account online and at any time.
The actual recording of the documents in the Broward County Records Division took less than five minutes. One staff member and a supervisor were necessary to process the transaction. This is in comparison to the traditional five-day-routing, and five-staff-member-handling of the documents. The agent was immediately notified by e-mail when the transaction was complete, and the documents, with all recording information annotated on the image, were also returned via e-mail at that time. The annotated image and indexing information appeared immediately on the county’s Web site.
The first electronic mortgage and home purchase transaction last July was a significant event by itself, but even more important, it represented a giant step toward the eventual goal of receiving the majority of documents in electronic format. I can’t emphasize enough how critical this is to recording offices in large, growing urban areas. Last year, we recorded nearly 800,000 documents. We’re never going to have enough staff or other resources to handle the seemingly ever- increasing workloads in a timely and effective manner without using technology.
Electronic transactions offer unique benefits to all participants. County clerks or recorders benefit because of significant reductions in associated labor costs. Incoming electronic documents are accompanied by machine-readable indexing data, eliminating errors, and minimizing the need for human handling. High volume documents, such as releases of lien, satisfactions of mortgage, liens, and assignments are particularly suited to this process.
Electronic recording also has the potential to significantly reduce the administrative costs associated with the entire mortgage process. The title industry benefits significantly by reducing the gap. Electronic processing eliminates the need for multiple points of data entry and the use of couriers to deliver and pickup the documents. Streamlined processing and reduction of expenses should ultimately result in savings which can be passed along to home buyers.
Because of the obvious benefits for the county, we are currently in the process of working with high volume governmental customers, including federal and state agencies, to increase the number of electronic recordings. Efforts include assisting other agency customers with electronic forms design and with understanding and using the necessary technology.
Education about the potential benefits to our customers is a big part of our current efforts. The division estimates that within two years, more than half of all recordings in the jurisdiction can be done electronically, through focusing on internal customers (other branches of the county organization), as well as other government entities. As the mortgage and title industries adopt the new standards and begin producing significant numbers of electronic documents, recording offices will further benefit from the technology.
We are also taking steps to ensure that, in the future, we have a recording system which will be flexible enough to accommodate the several emerging industry standards, including XHTML and Adobe PDF with metadata, as well as the current XML with TIFF format. We want a system that will be open to a variety of standard source formats. We have recently been fortunate enough to receive an invitation to work with Aptitude Solutions, a new subsidiary of American Pioneer Title Insurance Company, on developing a new, state-of-the-art recording system and look forward with excitement and enthusiasm to contributing our many new ideas to that effort.
When I first got involved with electronic recording about three years ago and began to attend various work groups where technology was discussed, I was stunned by the number of my counterparts around the country who were less than optimistic about the possibilities presented. I heard recorders express skepticism, disbelief, and downright hostility toward the concept of electronic recording. Many of my peers feared loss of control over their own processes and eventual elimination of the recorder’s role in the real property industry. There was even one notable discussion about lobbying for laws to prevent it! Now, when I attend national and state meetings of clerks and recorders, virtually everyone is either experimenting with electronic recording, reading and talking about it, or seeking funds to do it. Clerks are also participating in technology workgroups and really increasing their knowledge base. Now that we all better understand the possibilities and opportunities electronic recording presents, most of the fear has disappeared and we’re anxious to forge ahead.
Broward County became interested early in electronic recording technology and, like most early adopters of new technology, we’ve taken some lumps and had some setbacks. The technology we initially implemented, TIFF with XML, is not turning out to be the "gold standard." It has been more difficult than we anticipated finding partners ready and able to bring us large volumes of electronic documents to record. The mortgage industry hasn’t adopted new technology as rapidly as we had naively expected. Despite the difficulties we have encountered, we have no regrets about our adventures with electronic recording.
We’ve learned a great deal about the emerging technologies, met really interesting people, and had an enormous amount of fun. Some of the most important lessons I have learned are:
|1.||I have a personal responsibility to understand the basics of technology.|
|2.||It helps to talk to other people who are engaged in the same pursuits.|
|3.||It’s necessary to separate organizational goals from those potential partners.|
|4.||Recorders have a responsibility to citizens to ensure open and equal access to systems created|
|5.||Expect mistakes, but keep thinking about the enormous potential and don’t give up.|
|6.||Re-engineer processes; don’t just automate the "old" way of doing things.|
|7.||Surround yourself with bright, capable, creative technical people, and learn from them|
Tom McGrath, records automation manager, in my office, is a genius and has attracted a great technical team. He soaks up new information like a sponge and shares it generously. His enthusiasm and dedication inspire and motivate all of us.
We continue to believe that electronic recording is going to revolutionize the world of recording within the next five years and think we are positioned just where we need to be to reap the benefits of all this technology has to offer.
Sue Baldwin is director of Broward County Records Division. She can be reached at (954) 357-7271 or firstname.lastname@example.org. This article is an excerpt from Sue’s presentation during ALTA®’s 2001 Tech Forum in Orlando.