The cost of a copy of a county document in area counties has been questioned.
The cost for a copy of a county document, such as county board minutes or packet information or court records range from 25 cents to $1 a page depending on the county.
Don Gemberling, who directs the state office overseeing questions about public information, said, "If the actual cost is around 25 cents (per page), it's OK. If it gets above that, we start asking what is going on."
Cass, Todd and Wadena counties both charge at the high end of $1 a page. Cass County Chief Deputy Auditor Larry Wolfe said the county raised its fee of 25 cents a page in 2003 to $1 this year after it conducted a study on what other counties in the state were charging.
The study found that 26 counties charged $1 a page; 25 charged 50 cents; and 10 charged 25 cents. Not all the counties participated in the study.
Wolfe said a majority of the counties charged $1 a page and Cass agreed that was a fair price. Plus he said the treasurer's office has been charging $1 a page for the past 10 years and it was time for the other departments to catch up.
Wolfe said, like many counties, residents can obtain county documents on the Internet. Wolfe said he encourages residents to use this resource to save them money and to save county staff time.
Todd County Coordinator Tony Haasser said the auditor's, recorder's and assessor's offices, the main departments that make copies of the public documents, generate about $30,000 a year.
"Some have complained about the cost, but that's what it costs," said Haasser. "We have users that come into the office quite frequently and we feel they should cover part of the cost that most of the general public doesn't use."
Debbie Mursu, Wadena County deputy auditor, said the county raised its fees this year from 25 cents a page. She said the county looked at what other counties were charging and at staff time involved.
Crow Wing, Morrison and Aitkin counties charge 25 cents a page and also have many county documents on their Web sites for the public. If an Aitkin resident makes their own copy, instead of the staff making the copy, they pay a lower rate of 10 cents a page.
County officials said the 25 cent fee is not just the cost of the paper, but the cost of staff time, copier machines and other supplies.
Morrison County Administrator Tim Houle said two years ago their fees for copies were different in every department and the county wanted the cost to be constant.
"We are not in business to make money," said Houle. "Just to recover the cost. Reasonable people will disagree whether governments should charge more in user fees or more in taxes to offset the cost."
The St. Cloud Times surveyed 20 area cities, counties and school districts and found all of them charging more than the going rate for copies at a private copy shop -- 8 cents a page in St. Cloud -- and some of them charged more than 10 times that.
Private copy shops in Brainerd varied in charges from 5 cents to 10 cents a page for copies.
The Brainerd School District charges 10 cents a page. This year the district started entering the school board minutes on its Web site so residents can print a copy themselves.
The Times reported that people requesting copies of public documents often pay for a service already covered by taxes.
Even those who don't think they use public records probably do. The cost of copying records is passed along indirectly when buying a house, having some types of home repair work done or filing an accident claim with an insurance company.
Many challenge the costs through Gemberling's office. Almost no one takes cases to court because the potential court costs far exceed even the most outrageous copying bills, said Mark Anfinson, lawyer for the Minnesota Newspaper Association and an expert on state public records laws.
Anfinson said he doesn't think government officials are malicious when they charge high fees for copies. He thinks they just are using their own ideas of what is a fair fee instead of what the law says.
"I don't think they are looking at actual-cost language at all," Anfinson said. "They are doing it as the market-value or supply-and-demand approach as opposed to what the law says."
He said governments are figuring the overall cost to comply with all requests rather than the cost of what each copy costs to make.
(This story includes information from The Associated Press.)
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