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REPORT OF THE COMMITTEE
ON THE COMPUTERIZATION OF LAND RECORDS
Act 125, Sec. 7, 1997 Adj. Session. The Committee shall study the feasibility, cost, obstacles, and ways in which to computerize Vermonts land records in the towns so that Vermont land titles may be more easily, more reliably, and less expensively searched. The Committee shall obtain information on similar efforts outside Vermont to index and make available land records using computer databases. The Committee shall consider, among other options, the following:
The creation of form deeds and mortgages to identify encumbrances on title such as easements, reservations, and options;
The need for authorized electronic signatures;
Mechanisms for financing such a town computerized land records system.
The committee met a total of seven times, including two meetings to take public testimony. It used the Secretary of States 1998 survey on the condition of municipal records and reviewed what other states are doing to computerize their land records.
The committee finds that computerization of land records, which can cover anything from creating index databases to paper records to the filing of electronic records, is technically feasible and generally desired by those who routinely use land records (by land records we mean municipal records affecting title to property).
There are, however, numerous impediments to the effective and efficient implementation of computerization. These include the lack of a vision of what we want to accomplish through computerization (indeed, what we mean by computerization); lack of goals and objectives, as well as standards and guidance, on how to achieve that vision; and the lack of money to provide the hardware, software, maintenance, upgrading, and training necessary to sustain computerization. The matter is further complicated by the wide range of technology and computer skills currently available to municipal clerks and by differences in how municipalities index and make accessible their land records.
The committee believes it is extremely important to address these impediments in a timely and phased manner. Municipalities have already begun to create computerized indices to their paper land records. Without standards or guidance, any vision that includes a coordinated system, off-site access, etc. will become difficult, if not impossible, while expenses for reconverting existing systems will grow.
The committee, therefore, recommends that the General Assembly create and fund a commission to modernize the management of Vermonts municipal records affecting title to property. The commission would articulate a vision and identify the tools necessary to achieve that vision and to identify sustainable funding for modernization. Those tools could then be used by those municipalities which choose to computerize their land records.
The committee further recommends that the Vermont Municipal Clerks and Treasurers Association, using the tools created by the commission, develop a system of accrediting the recordkeeping practices of municipal offices.
As an immediate step the committee recommends that the Vermont Clerks and Treasurers Association begin work with the State Archives and the Public Records Division to identify and adapt national indexing standards for the indexing of Vermont land records.
Land records are essential to the social and economic well-being of Vermont. They secure title to the real estate of individuals, businesses and institutions. They are essential to determining property and other taxes; to developing and measuring the effectiveness of planning and zoning; and to identifying rights of way, sources of potential health problems and a host of other private and public sector needs. Vermonters should have a special awareness of the importance of accurate and accessible land records since Vermont was created to resolve conflicting land titles issued by New Hampshire and New York.
What is a land record? Land records were traditionally considered plats and instruments recorded in the land record books by municipal clerks, such as mortgage, quitclaim and warranty deeds. Act 125 broadened the definition to embrace a wider range of municipal records, including zoning, planning, subdivision, site plan, health, street, building, or other municipal permits; minutes of meetings that relate to municipal permits; certificates of occupancy; notice of violations of permits, etc. (see 24 V.S.A.§1154). Confusion remains over which municipal records should now be considered as part of the land records. The committee defined land records as municipal records affecting title to property.
Land records document transactions that have a tremendous economic impact on Vermont. According to figures from the Department of Taxes there were 35,362 property transfers in 1997, involving $1,557,545,440 and generating $16,902,984 in property transfer taxes.
All these transfers entail the filing and recording of land records with municipal clerks. As would be expected, the importance of the land records is further reflected in their use. The Secretary of States 1998 survey of the condition of municipal records suggests the volume of use. Seventy-nine clerks provided quantifiable information on annual requests for records, reporting an aggregate of 152,945 such requests. As some clerks noted in their responses, a single request can entail the actual handling and use of numerous records.
Two of the largest user groups of land records are lawyers doing title searches and surveyors. While title or survey research varies from case to case, some lawyers and surveyors offered estimates on the average number of documents they view during the course of a project. The lawyers estimated reading a minimum of thirty to forty documents per title search (though one search reportedly involved over a thousand documents). The surveyors, whose research must cover a longer time period and include not only the locus property but any adjoining property, estimated reading 200 documents per research. This represents significant expenditures for lawyer and surveyor fees.
Again this is non-scientific data from only a third of the municipalities and estimates by a few users. It does, however, suggest that hundreds of thousands of land records are accessed annually, while millions of individual pages are physically handled.
Chapter 11, Sec. 62 of the Vermont Constitution requires all deeds and conveyances of land to be recorded in the municipal clerks office in their respective town.
Land records support over $1.5 billion in economic activity, including property transfers, taxes, and lawyer and surveyor fees.
There is a need to access these records hundreds of thousands of times a year and to handle millions of individual documents.
Within the resources at their command, Vermonts municipal clerks do a commendable job of preserving and making accessible the land records under their control.
In Vermont, according to the Secretary of States survey of municipal records, 16.39% of the responding clerks reported creating computerized indices to their land records and 13.11% are using computers in conjunction with their land records (though they did not specify how).
There is no coordination of what hardware and software Vermont clerks acquire, nor any state guidance on making the hardware and software decisions.
While municipal clerks are not receptive to state mandates, they would appreciate guidance.
A patchwork of software and practices is evolving among the municipalities as clerks, vendors such as the Business Records Corporation, the New England Municipal Resource Center, or even local citizens develop or provide programs for indexing land records.
Private vendors have leased hardware and software to allow the computerization of indices to land records and, in some cases, scanning. This allows municipalities that might not otherwise be able to afford to computerize land records to do so. Some vendors require a municipality to record a minimum number of instruments a year in order to be eligible for their services.
Private vendors often use proprietary software restricting the ability to receive electronic copies of the indices or records which are public records. Vendors also vary in how they index and what content they include in the index.
While less than 2% of the responding Vermont clerks are supported by fees, 27% rely on a combination of fees and salary.
A survey of the New England states indicates that indices to land records are being computerized in each state and to varying degrees each is already scanning or is moving toward scanning land records.
Vermont, Connecticut and Rhode Island file and record land records at the municipal level; Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire have county based systems.
Vermont, Connecticut and Rhode Island are the only states which record land records at the municipal level.
The Connecticut Public Records Administrator reports that almost 100% of the municipalities computerize their indices; in Rhode Island some municipalities do, though there were no figures on how many.
Most states provide some guidance on standards for scanning and other electronic records issues. Connecticut (http://www.cslnet.ctstateu.edu/opra.htm) and Maine, for example, post such policies, while the Massachusetts Secretary of States Office established a Electronic Records Working Group involving Archives staff and representatives from municipal clerk organizations to develop guidelines. Standards also guide systems provided by private vendors.
None of the New England states apparently support the electronic filing of land records at this time, in most cases because of the lack of a digital signature law or laws addressing the legal admissibility of electronic records.
Massachusetts already provides, on a subscriber basis, on-line access to indices and some scanned land records. In New Hampshire a vendor is providing, on a fee basis, CD-ROMs containing indices and scanned land records.
Though several states such as Connecticut and Maine are moving to scan land and other permanent records, they urge that paper or microfilm copies be made for long term preservation until the stability of optical media, the requirements for migrating records across rapidly changing hardware and software platforms without information loss, and the long term costs of maintaining records exclusively in electronic form are better understood on the basis of experience.
Several states, including New York, Virginia (http://www.cim.state.va.us/LandRecords/Index.htm) and Wisconsin, funded task forces to create comprehensive, carefully planned approaches to the computerization of land records and to identify standards for indexing, content, and the automation of land records.
FACTORS INFLUENCING THE SCOPE OF COMMITTEE FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
In compiling findings and making its recommendations the committee was constrained by a lack of resources that prevented more in-depth collection of data and by a lack of technical expertise to address specific hardware and software solutions. The Committee recognizes the importance of the study options enumerated in its mandate, though several of them, notably digital signature legislation, must be addressed by the General Assembly in a broader context than land records. Finally, though Internet connectivity was not among the study options, the Committee recognizes that such connectivity would enhance access to computerized land records. The costs and requirements of connectivity should be explored.
As previously noted, the committee defined land record as municipal records affecting title to property.
In addressing its charge to study the "computerization" of land records the committee distinguished among three levels of technology that could be applied to land records.
Computer index. At the most basic level, a computer can be used to create an index to the paper based land records. That process is not difficult from a technology standpoint, but may be costly in terms of staff time needed for data entry, including backfiles. A small percent of municipalities already use various methods of building computer indices to their land records (in this case land records primarily means the deeds traditionally recorded in the bound volumes).
Images with Index. The second level of applying technology to land records is the use of scanners to collect images of pages of the existing land records and create an index using optical character recognition (OCR). We are not aware of any municipality currently using this level of application. OCR allows the computer to read and interpret information from a printed page and convert that information into a text file or database. OCR using current off-the-shelf technology is 95% to 98% accurate (accuracy rates would probably be less for older, handwritten land records). That means there may be two to five wrong characters out of every hundred characters (a typical printed page averages four to five thousand characters). It is critical to understand that each error in an index or document reduces the reliability of the records in general and may create a law suit, defect in title, or other problems for the person who owns, or holds mortgage, on the affected property.
Digital records. The ultimate phase of applying technology to land records is to digitize the records by filing digitized instruments (computer files validated by a digital signature); by filing scanned copies of instruments which have been converted to text files through optical character recognition; or by filing scanned images which have not been converted to text files but which are included in the computer index with the other digital records.
a. Computerizing land records is technically feasible.
Computerization is technically feasible as evidenced by our surveys of the New England and other states which reveal on-going efforts to computerize land records or subsets of land records. That this is feasible in a state where land records are recorded and preserved at the municipal level is demonstrated by Connecticuts report that almost all its towns have computerized indices to the records and a few are beginning to experiment with scanning land records. In Vermont some municipalities (less than 17%) are using computers in conjunction with land records.
b. Computerizing land records, if properly defined, funded, and guided, is desirable.
Testimony from municipal clerks, surveyors, lawyers, title insurance companies and other users of land records demonstrated broad recognition of the potential benefits of using new technologies in conjunction with land records. Benefits range from enhanced access, to potential linking with other related land records and systems, to preservation through the reduced handling of original documents.
To achieve these benefits efficiently and effectively requires, at a minimum, clearly articulated goals, adequate and sustainable funding, and a support structure capable of providing timely professional guidance on records and technical issues. These minimum components for a successful program are not yet in place in Vermont.
c. The transition to the computerization of land records is currently fragmented and lacks a coordinating set of goals and objectives.
Computerization of land records covers a wide range of possible approaches. Vermont municipalities currently "computerizing land records" are primarily focusing on indexing. Those municipalities have either contracted with vendors for indexing software and other services, or have developed their own, in-house systems.
Even within this limited application there are differences in what information is being included in the index, in how names are indexed (State of Vermont or Vermont, State of), and in the procedures required of users to locate and retrieve the records (including whether the indices are captured on proprietary software or otherwise restricted in terms of access). The use of idiosyncratic indexing practices is a continuation of the approach taken with paper records.
Within municipal governments, officers and departments often do not coordinate their use of computers in order to link related records to gain the greatest efficiencies. This is an important consideration given the range of municipal records that must now be linked to land records under Act 125.
d. There is no vision of what we want to accomplish through "computerization" of land records; no commonly agreed upon goals and objectives for achieving that vision; and no authoritative standards or guidelines for the indexing, content or automation of land records.
The fragmented approach noted above is largely the consequence of the lack of a vision and the tools needed to achieve that vision. What do we want to accomplish through the computerization of land records?
There are no adopted and widely accessible state or municipal technical standards for automating records. There are no sustained and progressive educational opportunities for those municipalities, or municipal clerks, wishing to automate. There are no adopted goals and objectives that can guide municipalities to develop automated land record systems, including indexing, and the standards needed for compatibility and future connectivity.
e. Municipal clerks want guidance but would not support mandated computerization.
A coordinating vision, technical advice, and standardized practices are necessary to avoid current steps that would make future connectivity difficult or impossible. While these components are essential if there is to be a systematic approach to automating land records, municipal clerks are aware that such a vision cannot be achieved without the availability of resources and funding. To simply mandate a goal of computerizing land records without providing the tools and resources to achieve that goal would not be acceptable. Tools and resources should be available to those municipalities that choose, at whatever level, to computerize their land records.
f. The cost of computerizing land records will be high.
Even a graduated approach to computerizing land records, beginning with computerized indices, will be expensive and beyond the ability of some municipalities to sustain. While we did not conduct a technology survey to see what hardware and software are currently being used by municipal clerks, anecdotally we are aware that there is a wide disparity of capabilities among the town systems available to the clerks.
The costs of providing common capabilities would probably parallel those associated with providing municipalities with computers under Act 60. The Tax Department provided the listers of each municipality meeting the Act 60 requirements with $2,000 worth of hardware and purchased 246 licenses to allow each municipality access to the same grand list software package.
Computers provided municipalities under Act 60 did not, as a rule, go to municipal clerks. Most went to listers and are unavailable to the clerks.
Obviously, any additional steps to computerize land records, beyond indexing, would bring additional costs. Testimony from vendors suggests, for example, an additional $4,000 to $5,000, per municipality, would be needed to provide scanning hardware. One vendor reported a maintenance charge of $990 a year for a scanning system, plus $650 a day for installation and training charges.
If a goal is to provide direct user access to the indices or to digitized land records, there may be additional costs for providing in-house, public access terminals and eventually Internet connectivity. Currently those towns which have computerized indices to their land records cannot provide public access to their database without disrupting business operations and compromising security. In some cases the clerk will provide a printout from the database; in others the users still must rely on the card or general index.
In-house access to digitized land records also entails additional expenses. One clerk noted that she could have from seven to nine users researching land records at once. She would need an adequate number of public terminals to allow simultaneous access to the digitized records.
There are also recurring costs associated with system upgrades and continued staff training, as well as the costs of indexing or scanning backfiles of land records. Some vendor agreements reduce short term costs by providing the necessary hardware, but without guidelines on compatibility, open systems, etc., use of vendors might exacerbate the fragmentation of land records systems.
The experience of Gary Snider, Town Clerk of Richford, suggests two aspects of the cost of computerizing land records. In an October 19, 1998 letter to the committee Mr. Snider noted that Richford had a computerized index to its land records going back 1965 and had had the capacity to scan land records for five years. His first point was that "as technology changes we must be aware of the media that our records are stored on. Since I became Town Clerk we have changed our storage media several times and had to make sure that we migrated our records properly each time...The fast pace in which technology changes is of great concern."
In addition to the costs associated with the rapid turnover in technology, Mr. Snider expressed concern about being unable to recoup the costs of creating and maintaining his system. He wrote that he could "not see the town paying out thousands of dollars to computerize when we must then sell this information for next to nothing." There is currently no ability to charge fees that reflect the costs of providing enhanced access, creating a disincentive to computerize. Indeed, the whole issue of recording fees and copying charges for land records must be examined because of Act 125s expansion of which municipal records must be recorded with, or referenced to, in the land records and because existing charges based on number of pages are confusing in a world of electronic formats and media.
g. The lack of an articulated vision, adopted goals and objectives, technical support, or standards, as well as the cost of computerization, are all barriers to achieving an efficient and effective system for land records.
Without an overall vision of what we want to achieve, and the tools needed to achieve that vision, computerization of land records will simply continue the fragmented approach currently followed in indexing and providing access to paper records. The lack of these key components means each municipality (at least those that can afford to) will commit to different formats, systems, indexing practices, etc. Certainly the potential for self-service searching or on-line access or the improved marketability of title will be diminished if each municipality creates its own system for computerizing land records and their indices. Similarly, efforts to logically link to other land records and land record databases (such as those of the Geographic Information Systems, the Vermont Coordinate System, or the Tax Department) will become more difficult.
There is a need to move in a timely fashion to create this larger framework for computerization. As more and more municipalities commit time and resources to developing their own systems, it will be that much more costly and time consuming to retroactively implement a coordinated system and realize the full benefits of automating the land records.
h. Form deeds can be used in connection with technology to improve public access to and use of land records.
There are already a number of form deeds which are widely and regularly used. The best example is the FNMA/FHLMC form of mortgage deed which is used in nearly every residential transaction involving Vermont property. The FNMA/FHLMC deed consists of a front page where the names of the mortgagor, mortgagee, the location of the property and basic information about the amount secured by the mortgage are inserted, followed by six to eight pages of standard text which never varies, and finally a signature page and a schedule with the property description.
The other form deeds widely in use are the warranty deed and the quitclaim deed. Each of these deeds has a standard set of language and a standard form by custom and usage. The warranty deed and quitclaim deed are far less "standard" in appearance than the FNMA/FHLMC mortgage because people who use the deeds have put the deed language into wordprocessors with different typefaces, formatting and other characteristics.
Presently there are no statutory forms of deeds, though there is a statutory form of mortgage discharge. Other than the discharge and requirements applicable to land plats, the only statutory requirements regulate the formalities of the execution of the instruments. Currently the instruments used in conveyancing, mortgaging and leasing property must be sufficiently flexible to cover the myriad of situations which arise in the ordinary course of creating interests in real property, as well as in transferring and mortgaging those interests.
In order to create an effective set of form deeds, it will be necessary to adopt a comprehensive code relating to the creation, transferring, and mortgaging of property interests. Within that comprehensive scheme of conveyancing, the forms and, most importantly, the meaning and effect of those instruments could be established by statute, bringing stability and predictability to the conveyancing area. In the process of creating the statutory forms of instruments, it would be possible to mandate forms, organization of information, typefaces and sizes which would contribute significantly to the application of technology to indexing and storing these new forms of instruments.
Form deeds and other instruments will enhance the application of technology to the indexing, maintaining and storing of the land records. A form deed with a specified format for identifying the parties to the land transfer and the description of the property being transferred would facilitate the indexing of the document, whether done manually or by computer. Using a statutory form of instrument in connection with a comprehensive real estate code would encourage (or mandate) the use of standard forms of presenting the information contained in the deed and the standard use of terminology relating to the parties to, and the purpose and effect of, the instrument.
For imaging and optical character recognition indexing mandating the form and format of the deed not only facilitates the process, but also may be required to make the process work. By requiring a specific typeface, font, and size, the readability of the final image is enhanced and the accuracy of the OCR process for creating the indexing is improved. One system that has worked well is being used by some counties in New York. Each instrument submitted for recording must be accompanied by a cover sheet on which the information necessary to create the index is laid out in a specified format which improves the accuracy of the OCR process.
If we reached the stage of using digital records to create searchable databases of land records, it would be critical to require that most instruments be submitted in a specific electronic form for recording.
The Committee makes three recommendations:
the General Assembly should create and fund a commission to modernize the management of Vermonts municipal records affecting title to property.
the Vermont Municipal Clerks and Treasurers Association should develop a system for accrediting the recordkeeping practices of municipal offices. If the General Assembly creates and funds the commission recommended above, the VMCTA should use the tools it creates to establish accreditation standards.
the Vermont Municipal Clerks and Treasurers Association should begin work immediately with the State Archives and Public Records Division to identify and adapt national indexing standards.
A. Commission to modernize the management of Vermonts municipal records
The General Assembly should create and fund a commission to modernize the management of Vermonts municipal records affecting title to property. The commission would be charged with:
articulating a vision for modernizing the management of municipal records affecting title to property (hereafter referred to as land records)
producing a strategic plan to achieve that vision and to eliminate current impediments to modernization of land records management. This would include:
developing standards for land records content and format
developing statewide indexing standards
developing a progressive and sustained educational program to keep municipal clerks abreast of automating, indexing, and other standards and practices
conducting an inventory of technology currently being used by municipalities
recommending technology standards for automating land records
identifying sustainable funding sources to support modernization and automation of land records management.
The commissions mandate shall be to provide those municipalities which wish to computerize their land records with the recommended standards, best practices, models and other tools necessary to accomplish the overall vision. The commission shall not have the authority to mandate that municipalities computerize their records that affect the title to property.
Membership of the commission should include custodians and users of land records, as well as records specialists. The membership shall be:
three municipal clerks, one representing municipalities of over 10,000 people, one under 10,000, and one under 3,000, selected by the Vermont Municipal Clerks and Treasurers Association.
one representative from the State Archives
one representative from Buildings and General Services
one representative selected by the Vermont Bar Association
one representative of a planning or zoning commission, selected by the Vermont League of Cities and Towns
one representative selected by the Vermont Land Surveyors Association.
one representative selected by the Vermont Paralegal Organization
The organizational meeting should be called by the State Archivist.
The budget for the commission should be adequate to pay travel expenses of non-state government members for attending six meetings a year; for conducting technology surveys of municipal offices; for secretarial support; and to provide for expert testimony, notably from those involved in similar efforts in other states and from people with the technical expertise to identify systems that best meet the requirements for managing land records in the most effective and efficient manner.
Initial funding could come from the General Fund, until the commission can identify revenue streams for long term support.
The commission shall undergo sunset review every four years.
The vision should be comprehensive and embrace the management of land records rather than the "computerization" of land records.
There are several possible model visions developed by other states. New York, for example, envisioned creation of a land records system that links uniquely identifiable parcels of land (based on the states coordinate system) to deeds, mortgages, tax information, GIS data, maps, environmental data, and all other real property information collected at all levels of government. Virginias task force defined land records management as the uniform indexing and preservation of the instruments and data relating to land integrated with local and state geographical information systems (GIS) layered data, assessment information, and other public records relating to land and made available to the public.
Any Vermont vision must recognize that our municipal-based system of land records is relatively unique, requiring a phased implementation and voluntary participation. The commission should continue to look closely at possible models from Connecticut and Rhode Island, the only other states with municipal-based systems.
The strategic plan must address all municipal records that affect title to property, must be designed so it can be phased in over time as impediments to the vision are eliminated, and meet the needs of Vermonts smallest, as well as wealthiest, municipalities.
Possible components for the strategic plan were outlined above.
Standardizing indexing practices will eliminate one of the impediments and will ensure indices adaptable to any future effort to create on-line access.
Standardizing the content (what gets included) and formats includes exploring models in other states for streamlined forms, such as a standard cover sheet, and the use of cadastral maps.
Educational opportunities are crucial if standards are to be understood and adopted. Initial educational efforts should focus on indexing standards.
A technology inventory is important to understand what, and how, municipalities are employing technologies. This will help frame steps toward greater compatibility.
Technology standards will provide clerks, and vendors, with guidance in determining what hardware and software best meets their needs without frustrating any future efforts to realize the comprehensive vision. Technology standards will also help prevent the capture of public records on proprietary software that cannot be easily accessed by the public.
Funding is crucial given the costs associated with implementing the vision. There are some models in other states that should be explored, while recognizing the uniqueness of the Vermont environment. One possibility would be to have the Tax Department set a portion of the property transfer tax aside for automation of municipal records affecting title to property. In that way a portion of the state revenue generated by such records can be applied to improving the marketability of record titles.
Other possibilities include exploring higher fees for enhanced access via indices on CD-ROM or on-line through a subscription fee. Such fees or subscriptions would reflect the cost to municipalities in providing enhanced access. States that have followed this tact still provide access to public terminals in the municipal office.
In considering any revenue stream for the support of these efforts it is important to recall the volume of economic activity associated with land records.
B. Implementation of commission recommendations
Our study underscored two competing tensions: a) "computerization" of land records can not be effectively and efficiently accomplished without standards and b) municipalities are extremely wary of state mandates, particularly when they involve the potential expenditure of large sums of money and the erosion of local prerogatives. So the question we confronted was how to have unmandated standards that would be implemented.
We recommend that the commission identify minimum to optimum requirements that should be in place in a municipal office to assure the efficient and effective automation of land records. The Vermont Municipal Clerks and Treasurers Association would use these gradated standards to certify municipal offices (as opposed to municipal clerks).
If nothing else was done it would at least put pressure on non-certified offices to begin taking minimal steps. If a statewide pool of funds was created through use of the property transfer tax, the availability of that funding could be linked to attaining various degrees of accreditation.
The legislatively-mandated survey on the condition of municipal records, conducted by the Secretary of States Office, echoed the recommendations that there be guidance on basic preservation and conservation practices and that a program for certifying municipal offices be explored.
C. Begin work on standardized indexing
While the commission on the management of municipal records affecting title to property is key to creating an effective and coordinated system for land records, some steps can begin immediately. Therefore we recommend that the Vermont Municipal Clerks and Treasurers Association immediately begin to work with the State Archives and Public Records Division to identify indexing standards, such as the American National Standards Institutes alpha-numeric indexing standard, and adapt them to the requirements of Vermonts land records.
Further, we recommend that the VMCTA identify ways to begin teaching those adapted standards to their constituents.
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