What good is access to government records if it costs as much as a bank buyout to get copies? Too often public agencies charge more than they should for copies of records, sometimes as much as $1 or more per page. That’s just wrong, and in most states it’s illegal.
By my count, about 35 states allow officials to charge only for the actual cost of photocopies or a reasonable fee (see the Reporters Committee Open Government Guide online comparison function at rcfp.org/ogg). In many states, the charge can account only for paper, toner and machine costs, not staff time.
It seems reasonable for an agency to charge no more than 10 cents per page. After all, if Kinko’s (now FedEx Office) charges 10 cents per page, and that business is out for a profit, it should cost less for a nonprofit government agency to make a copy.
So don’t stand for government gouging. Here are 10 tips for reducing or eliminating those outrageous copy fees:
1) Don’t ask for copies. Look at the records for free.
2) Narrow your request by picking and choosing only the documents that are necessary to copy.
3) Photograph the documents at the agency office with a digital camera.
4) Tote a portable scanner (about $100 at most electronic stores), or your own photocopier.
5) Ask for the records in a digital format. Have the files transferred onto a flash drive or blank CD-ROM, or have the files e-mailed.
6) Print out your state law (rcfp.org/ogg) and make the agency justify the actual costs of copying through a line-item list. If they balk, request to see the contract with their copy services company for how much they pay per copy.
7) If the agency won’t provide that justification, help them out with your own list, courtesy of a visit to Office Depot and Xerox Web sites and quick use of a calculator:
A. Paper: Box of 10 reams (500 sheets each ream), at $35.99 = 0.7 cents per page.
B. Machine: Xerox WorkCentre 5225 costs $4,299 and produces 75,000 copies a month. Assuming two-year life, that’s 0.2 cents per page.
C. Maintenance contract: As an example, my university department’s contract for copy machine maintenance and toner: 0.9 cents per page.
D. Electricity: Negligible.
E. Total cost per copy: 1.8 cents.
8) Survey the local agencies in your area and do a story about the inconsistency in fees and outrageous ways government fleeces the public. Interview average people who pay the fees and ask elected officials why they think it’s necessary to overcharge citizens to access records they’ve already paid for through their taxes.
9) Contact your state public records ombudsman, attorney general’s office or press association to see if anyone can talk some sense into the agency.
10) Sue or lobby for legislation specifying lower, reasonable fees.
David Cuillier is the SPJ Freedom of Information Committee chairman and teaches journalism at the University of Arizona. Check out the FOI FYI blog at blogs.spjnetwork.org/foi. E-mail him at
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