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Viewing full-page images of deeds, mortgages and other records will be possible without making a trip downtown via an online system unveiled Tuesday by Erie County Clerk David J. Swarts.

Subscribers of the business-oriented system, an upgrade of the county's present remote-access service, will get more information at a lower cost, Swarts said. The service, currently costing $500 a month, is aimed at lawyers, banks and other document-intensive firms.

"The way mortgages are sold and resold, before you know it the mortgage holding company is out in Texas or Oklahoma," he said.

Local businesses as well as far-off ones should be able to work more efficiently using online images, Swarts said.

David Stillwell, partner in the Buffalo law firm O'Shea, Reynolds & Cummings, agreed.

"Having the image available saves someone having to walk down here -- it's a huge time saver," he said. Stillwell was among 10 test users who attended a demonstration of the system Tuesday.

Images of more than 3 million documents going back to 1994 will be available with the upgraded system, programmer-analyst Jane H. Walker said. The current online system only provides summary information from documents, not a full-page duplicate of the original.

Among the records available are deeds, mortgages, tax liens, companies' doing-business-as filings and other records kept by the clerk's office, except court documents. The county launched a two-month test of the system Tuesday, with full availability expected to begin late this year or early next.

The imaging network will cost users at least one-third less than the current $500 monthly fee for online access, Swarts said. Final costs aren't determined, he said. About 30 companies are currently registered for remote access, a number he expects to grow as the upgraded system catches on.

The system uses an "intranet," a private network provided by an arm of IBM Corp., to connect users with county records. The intranet has the ease-of-use features of the Internet without the security concerns of unrestricted access, Walker said. Instead of entering the system from the World Wide Web, users must dial in directly via computer modem, in addition to providing their password.

The clerk's office began online access in 1994 with a $2 million investment in computer equipment, paid for via a $3 per-document user fee, Swarts said. The upgrade for imaging capability will cost the county $1,000 a month, Swarts said, not including costs that are passed on to users.

The test launched Tuesday is overdue from the county's original hopes, Swarts said. However, he said Erie is the first county in the nation that is imaging records to such an extent.

A consortium of upstate counties including Monroe and Chautauqua are adopting the same system, which bundles connection services from IBM with software provided by Systems & Computer Technology Corp. of Lexington, Ky.

Reducing the need for paper records stored in bulky deed books should save the office 10,000 square feet of space, Swarts said.

Eventually, users will be able to send documents to the County Clerk via computer as well as retrieve them, Walker said. Also in the future, Erie County's system may link with those in nearby counties.

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