This letter is in response to the May 21 Wilkes County commissioners meeting when representative of Triad Multiple Listing Services and the president of the Wilkes County Association of Realtors spoke to the commissioners on behalf of the Wilkes Association of Realtors concerning the fee needed to access the Wilkes Register of deeds website.
Being one of the last register of deed offices in the state to go online allowed us the benefit of hindsight. Thank you, Rick Woodruff, my predecessor, for realizing there would be repercussions from rushing to jump on the Internet band wagon. The rush to have online access to land records came before fraud and identity theft were such a huge market. Some other registers I have spoken with wish they had gone digital more safely and cost efficiently.
I was duly elected by the people of Wilkes County to be the “safe-keeper” of the public’s important land records. The push for our office to go online was at the forefront of everyone’s conversation since the day I came to work in the office as a deputy register of deeds in 2004. When I took office in 2016, I knew I wanted to put our office online to help business professionals have less footwork and help them save time and money. Some customers came into the office every day, searched our records and spent $10-$40 each visit, depending on the number of copies they made at 25 cents each.
I had to uphold my promise to the people and come up with the safest method of putting records on the Internet. The decision was mine to make and I feel I’ve done it the right way. First, I sent the documents through Optical Character Recognition (OCR), an expensive program that searches each document for sensitive information and redacts (blacks it out) so it can’t be seen online. This cost was $61,071.
It costs $500 per month ($6,000 per year) to get the website up and maintained. We lost a great amount of revenue due to people not making paper copies. I had to come up with a way to make up for this, as our automation fund is statutorily for preservation of records. I decided to have a user-based membership website. If you go to www.wilkesncrod.org, you’ll find Wilkes County’s real estate records. At no charge, you can search all of our index records back to July 1926. The older index books (1926-1992) and plat map and restrictive covenant index books were scanned and can be found under “imaged index” on the website. Searching the index records alone produces a great deal of information.
You must pay the $150 annual membership fee to view the document. Being able to view and copy documents from a home or office for $12.50 per month is a huge savings from having to spend 25 cents per sheet of paper. My office will gladly help people get copies by other means if they wouldn’t use the website enough to justify paying the $150, or if they don’t want to use the website for any reason. We can email, fax or mail copies and electronic payments are accepted by phone. People can still come to the office in person for copies.
Having a member-based site helps recover some of the revenue from maintenance fees and paper copies that we lost when we put records online. The $25,000 in copy fees we made annually before going online was drastically reduced. Last year, we generated $16,650 in membership fees to help offset the cost of being online.
With a member-based system, we know who is viewing our records. It’s a way for me to better protect our records. Allowing access on the Internet at no charge would release valuable information to anyone worldwide. The website is for helping business professionals save time and money, not for someone wanting to learn people’s private business.
If you want this information, become a member or come to the office and pay for a copy. Fraud and identity theft is a huge market these days. There are people here and overseas who are paid to sit and search through documents, looking for information they can find to help them steal identities and commit fraud. My job is to help protect citizens from this when it comes to real estate records.
Charging a fee of $12.50 per month to have full access to our records from anywhere in the world is the safest and most efficient way for my office and the citizens of Wilkes.
It is a great honor and a privilege to serve the citizens of Wilkes. It’s not about me, but about the people. I will continue to work hard safe-keeping and preserving the history of lives with integrity and do what I feel is best for my office and our county. I’ll gladly meet and discuss this with anyone. Email me or call me.
MISTY M. SMITHEY,
Register of Deeds,