Mobile County Probate Judge Don Davis told a local legislative delegation that he would have to charge users to access data from the court’s website, if a bill aimed to help enhance his office’s public records system isn’t passed by July 1, 2015.
Davis sent a letter to local members of the state House and Senate on Monday detailing the office’s financial situation and asking them to approve a solution in the form of a bill, which would allow Davis to raise the special recording fee from $2 to $5 on documents processed through the probate court, including marriage licenses, deeds, mortgages, judgments and other documents. The additional $210,132 a year generated from the fee would be put toward updating old microfilm records into digital form.
There have been several issues facing the probate office, which have added to the tough financial situation, Davis said. The number of filings related to real estate is down, since that market took a hit in 2008. Also the number of contested filings is down.
Davis said inflation has also taken its toll, as a $2 recording fee went a lot further in 1998 when the legislature first approved it than it does now.
“Two dollars in 1998 is now $1.44,” Davis said in an interview Wednesday. “Two dollars doesn’t buy what it did in 1998.”
In addition, Davis’ office is in the process of converting its microfilm records to digital records. All records since 2000 have been digitized, but the digital records only go back another 10 years from that time to 1990.
“Unfortunately, we have 178 years of records to address, not counting ‘colonial’ French and Spanish land records,” he wrote to legislators.
The microfilm library is deteriorating and has been for about the last two years. In the letter, Davis estimated his office would need approximately $1.15 million to solve the problem.
“All of these factors are creating a perfect storm,” Davis said.
Davis added that the $5 fee, as proposed in the bill, would only be in effect for 10 years, and could be lowered once the funding issue is resolved.
“We aren’t a bank,” Davis said. “We’re just trying to address this issue. If it turns out we can charge less I would like to do that.”
While the Mobile Bar Association, the Home Builders of Metropolitan Mobile and the Mobile Area Association of Realtors all support the legislation, the chairman of the local legislative delegation does not.
James Buskey, D-Mobile, called the fee increase a new tax.
“That bill, the way I read it, raises fees on every document filed in Mobile Probate Court,” he said. “That is a tremendous amount of tax.”
Buskey added that unless the majority opinion of the delegation has “changed in the last 24 hours” the bill wouldn’t be brought up for a vote, with just eight legislative days left in the session.
Buskey said he understands that the probate court is facing financial hardships, but “that is true at every level of government.”
“They are going to have to make adjustments,” he said.
Davis said his office has made adjustments. The probate court is down to 2004 staffing levels, even though the county recommends departments maintain larger 2007 levels.
The Mobile County Commission is another source of funding for Davis’ office, but he has seen his budget cut in previous years.
If the bill doesn’t pass during this session, Davis said his office would continue to push for it in the next session, but the court would have to begin charging for access to data on its website on July 1, 2015. Access to data on the website is currently free, but Davis can legally charge for the data if he chooses.
Viewers would be granted free access to the court’s judicial calendar, docket and real estate indices, but the court would require a $2 fee per page to view and print a document, Davis wrote in the letter.
“The proposed fee is similar to the fee model that Jefferson County Probate Court currently utilizes for access to the data in its internet website,” he wrote.
Jefferson County charges a special recording fee of $16, Davis said. Alabama counties as a whole charge $3.70 in special recording fees, on average. That figure is $1.70 more than what Mobile County, the second largest county in the state, charges.
Calls to State Reps. Randy Davis, Chad Fincher, David Sessions and Napoleon Bracey weren’t immediately returned on Wednesday. Fincher also didn’t immediately respond to an email.