Jeff Branscome writes about Spotsylvania County.
County cannot charge flat fee to review records because it is not true cost
If someone requests a copy of a permit or approved building plans that are stored off site or on site, the county charges a $25 fee plus cost of copies at 50 cents per copy.
According to the Freedom of Information Act, this is not acceptable. Government entities are only allowed to charge for actual costs of getting you the material you want.
You don’t need to have copies that cost money. You can ask to view the document in person. In realistic terms, it shouldn’t cost anything for a county employee to grab a file from a cabinet. But charging a $25 flat fee to review public records is just not in spirit with the FOIA laws. The county may even raise the fee to $55.
The county is basically saying that the employee who is making the copy for you is paid $25 an hour or more, and that it will take an hour to get you that copy of the permit or building plan. If these new fees are approved, the fee rises to $55. Does it really take an hour to make a copy of something?
Oftentimes, government charges people 50 cents or more for copies of public records. This also could be argued as being in violation of FOIA because it is not the true cost to make a copy of a piece of paper. It’s been long argued that the true cost of copying a piece of paper is like 7 to 10 cents.
I bring this up because tomorrow the Board of Supervisor has a work session on what the county should charge for building fees. When reviewing the document, that is when I saw the flat $25 fee to see permits, building plans and other public records.
Here is what the FOIA law says:
F. A public body may make reasonable charges not to exceed its actual cost incurred in accessing, duplicating, supplying, or searching for the requested records. No public body shall impose any extraneous, intermediary or surplus fees or expenses to recoup the general costs associated with creating or maintaining records or transacting the general business of the public body. Any duplicating fee charged by a public body shall not exceed the actual cost of duplication. The public body may also make a reasonable charge for the cost incurred in supplying records produced from a geographic information system at the request of anyone other than the owner of the land that is the subject of the request. However, such charges shall not exceed the actual cost to the public body in supplying such records, except that the public body may charge, on a pro rata per acre basis, for the cost of creating topographical maps developed by the public body, for such maps or portions thereof, which encompass a contiguous area greater than 50 acres. All charges for the supplying of requested records shall be estimated in advance at the request of the citizen.
G. Public records maintained by a public body in an electronic data processing system, computer database, or any other structured collection of data shall be made available to a requester at a reasonable cost, not to exceed the actual cost in accordance with subsection F. When electronic or other databases are combined or contain exempt and nonexempt records, the public body may provide access to the exempt records if not otherwise prohibited by law, but shall provide access to the nonexempt records as provided by this chapter.