They’re called “title abstractors,” and they’re typically not the kind of people who make a lot of noise.

Yet there 10 of them stood Thursday morning in the Cumberland County Registry of Deeds, sounding off in no uncertain terms over the county’s plan to send them packing.

“This is a courthouse, it’s not an office building — and that’s what they’re trying to turn it into,” lamented Nancy Cole, who conducts real-estate title searches for Maine-based Gateway Title. “We want to keep it a courthouse so we can do our job efficiently.”

Their complaint: Sometime in the next few months, the registry of deeds will be moved from its century-old digs in the Cumberland County Courthouse to leased space in what used to be the T.G.I. Friday’s restaurant in Portland’s Old Port.


“That’s our question!” the abstractors responded in unison. “Why?”

A bit of background: This fall, as he prepared Cumberland County’s $33 million proposed budget for 2012, County Manager Peter Crichton had a little windfall on his hands — $2.1 million, to be exact.

That was the annual payment on the county jail debt, which (cue the confetti) was paid off completely this year.

A break for county taxpayers? Well … not exactly.

“We need to utilize this retired debt as a resource to accomplish a number of important goals,” Crichton wrote in his budget message to the county commissioners, who have until mid-December to approve the spending package.

Foremost among those goals, Crichton said in an interview Thursday, is finding more space for county government.

It’s a complicated plan.

First, the entire registry of deeds would be relocated three blocks down Pearl Street to the 10,000-square-foot former restaurant — about half of which will be used for the registry while the other half is kept in reserve for future county operations. The rent, which doesn’t include some $50,000 in required renovations, will be $130,000 per year.

Into the 7,000 square feet of vacated courthouse space would go the county’s finance office (now at the jail), an expanded human-resources department, the district attorney’s juvenile division and, if all goes well, one other add-on.

“We’re also looking at trying to do something with a fitness room,” said Crichton. “We have a wellness initiative (for county employees) that we’re trying to get under way.”

No kidding — a workplace gym?

“No, it’s not going to be a gym,” Crichton replied. “The idea — and it’s a goal — is to try and have a fitness area where people could come and maybe there would be some workout equipment and that kind of stuff.”

You’d think the “fitness center” would be the lightning rod for those opposed to the move — including, in addition to the title searchers, one very irritated Register of Deeds Pam Lovley.

But hard as they try to imagine their work space being replaced in part by the courthouse’s first-ever elliptical machine, that’s not their biggest gripe.

“One-stop shopping. One-stop searching,” explained Lovley while the title searchers — also known as her customers — nodded in agreement.

It works like this: As they peruse the indexes and registry books (there are 25,000 of them, 350 pages each) to find a property’s history going back a minimum of 40 years, the searchers often run into questions. Many can only be answered by heading down the hall to the probate court or down the stairs to Portland District Court (where, for example, all foreclosure proceedings originate).

“I would say 40 percent of the searches probably involve probate, district or superior court,” said Susan Knedler, owner of Bay Area Title. “And we’re doing so many short sales and foreclosures now, we’re always in the courthouse.”

Toss a three-block walk up Pearl Street (and back) into that mix every time a loose end needs to be tied up and, noted Knedler, her profits take a nosedive.

“We work for a flat fee (per search),” she noted. “We can’t bill by the hour.”

Lovley’s and the abstractors’ solution: Keep the registry right where it is and move the county’s executive offices (including Crichton’s), along with the finance, human resources and information technology departments, down to the former T.G.I. Friday’s.

Then use that courthouse space to accommodate the overcrowded District Attorney’s Office.

“It doesn’t provide enough,” countered Crichton. “The DA’s office would still not have enough space to do what they need to do.”

Crichton also argued that much of the trove of documents has been digitally scanned and is now available online. In fact, he said, the registry’s website currently has about 130 registered users — many of whom can conduct searches from the comfort of their own homes or offices.

Lovley concedes that her world is fast going digital — new documents have gone straight to the database since 2005, and so far the old ones have been scanned and uploaded all the way back to 1907.

But talk to those searchers and they’ll tell you the marginal notations on countless documents — the clues by which they do their detective work — often don’t show up on the scanned images.

“The computer just doesn’t reflect that,” said Ruth McElroy, who works for Knedler and has been a daily regular at the registry since 1984.

Worse yet, according to Cole of Gateway Title, the county’s computer-access system actually takes longer to navigate than the hard copies themselves.

“In the time it takes me to do one or two searches online, I can do five if I’m right here,” Cole said.

Add to that the one-time visitors — teary couples settling divorces, panicky relatives putting up their homes as bail for the black sheep of the family — and it’s hard for these folks to imagine the courthouse without the registry of deeds.

“If you ever see these people wandering around here — they’re distraught, they don’t know where they’re going, they don’t know what they’re doing because they’ve never been in here before,” said Cole. “And (moving the registry to another location) will make it so much more difficult for them.”

But move the registry, it now appears, the county will do.

“For a lot of these (title abstractors), this is their home away from home,” Crichton said. “I understand that. I appreciate that and I’m not insensitive to that. And the commissioners aren’t either.”

Besides, why not look at the bright side?

Everyone’s going to get more exercise.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

[email protected]