At its worst, the record level of activity could be an indicator that the local economy is still in the doldrums.

Industry observers, however, don't put much stock in the latter, suggesting that a 66 percent increase in first-quarter foreclosure filings could instead be the result of aggression by lenders.

Nationwide, foreclosure activity fell in the first quarter of 2012. It increased 8.08 percent in Wisconsin compared with the first three months of last year, according to the foreclosure listing firm RealtyTrac.

Rock County Clerk of Courts Eldred Mielke said local foreclosure filings in the first quarter totaled 444, compared with 268 for the first quarter of 2011.

As filings go, January was a routine month.

That changed, however, in February, when Mielke's office received 175 filings. Another 189 followed in March.

In total, that's 150 more cases than any previous three-month period in the last seven years.

The local foreclosure activity is the most significant trend to emerge from The Gazette's most recent quarterly economic dashboard.

National foreclosure activity, as measured by the number of homes receiving foreclosure-related notices, slowed sharply in fall 2010, when claims surfaced that some banks and mortgage servicers were processing foreclosures without verifying documents.

A $25 billion settlement reached in February between the nation's biggest mortgage lenders and state officials paved the way for banks to take action on unpaid mortgages, many of which have been in a procedural limbo for months or years.

"With that settlement in February, everyone said that it would start to pick up again, and that could be what's going on in Rock County," said J. Michael Collins, faculty director of the Center for Financial Security and a professor at UW-Madison.

Collins said it's also likely a handful of those large servicers have mortgages in Rock County.

"They probably have a heavy concentration, and when they decide to get aggressive, all it takes is one of the top five servicers to make a move, and that will affect the numbers in a relatively smaller market."

Jerry Morse is the president of the Rock-Green Realtors Association and an owner of The Morse Co. in Janesville.

He, too, suspects the recent spike in foreclosure filings is an aggressive effort targeted at homeowners who have been in arrears for a long time. He doesn't believe that it's the result of new people falling upon hard economic times.

"I think that after the robo-signing thing, the lenders backed off," he said. "But now, they've started moving forward again."

Whatever the reason, the recent surge will affect the local market, he said.

While not all foreclosure filings result in foreclosures, the number of distressed properties on the market undoubtedly will grow.

Foreclosures typically sell at a discount and can drag down the value of neighboring properties. The prospect of more foreclosures means it could take longer for home prices in some areas to bounce back.

On a quarter-to-quarter basis, the number of local homes sold in 2012 was 30 percent more than in 2011, and the average price was up about 4 percent.

That's good news, Morse said.

But among March sales, 38 percent were bank foreclosures, he said.

"The fact that the number of sales went up indicates that the process is working," Morse said. "Prices aren't going to change that substantially probably for the next two or three years until we run through the inventory of bank foreclosures.

"The good news is that as long as sales go up, we're working through it."

Collins said lenders might be more aggressive now because they sense an improvement in the housing market. In months past, he said, they might have avoided starting foreclosure proceedings because it wasn't worth the effort to take back the property and list it in a depressed market.

Rather than a large wave of bank-owned homes crashing onto the market, it's likely the new crop of foreclosures will arrive in smaller waves throughout the year, industry analysts said.

They also believe many of the homes entering the foreclosure process now are properties with loans that have gone unpaid for a long time, not instances of borrowers just starting to fall behind.

"I really do think that this has more to do with the system catching up rather than new defaults," said Sandra Baner of Baner & Associates in Janesville.

Baner said she hasn't had an increase in calls from prospective clients seeking help with new foreclosure notices.

"What I have seen, albeit anecdotally, is that the whole foreclosure process is taking much longer," she said. "It used to be that if you were three months in default, you'd get a letter saying you'd better pay in 30 days or the process starts.

"Now, I've talked to some people who haven't made a payment for much longer who are just starting the process."

While The Gazette has compiled and published a quarterly dashboard of economic indicators for a couple years, a local group is offering a new perspective.

Rock County 5.0, a five-year public-private economic development initiative designed to reposition and revitalize the county's economy, has launched its Rock Ready Index, a quarterly dashboard report on economic development.

Each quarter, the dashboard will offer statistics and information grounded in five categories: workforce, real estate, sales activity, project announcements and a profile of a recent project.

"The point of it is to document as well as highlight positive statistics that represent what's going on locally in those five areas," said James Otterstein, Rock County's economic development manager. "We want to offer a high-level, quick-hit type of report as part of our marketing approach for Rock County."

Otterstein said some of the data sets would change each quarter, while others will not.