COPIES AND ROBBERS
Colorado residents have a right to look at the state's public records. But more and more often, that right comes with a stiff price tag attached.
Eager to raise revenue in an era of belt-tightening, state agencies are charging citizens up to $1.25 per page for copies of everything from real estate records to court files--even to obtain copies of their own marriage licenses and divorce decrees.
Those charges often come on top of hefty "search fees" that critics say may soon price the average citizen out of the market. Those premiums, ranging from $25 at the Colorado State Archives to between $3 and $8 at some county courthouses, were approved by the legislature in an attempt to compensate clerks swamped with requests from for-profit data services. But now many agencies are applying the charges across the board, in some cases even charging crime victims to look at their own case files.
State representative Bob Hagedorn, a Democrat from Aurora, says he cringes every time he hears bureaucrats use the term "reasonable fee" in regard to public records. "When it takes someone five minutes to walk back, pull out a file, take it to a copier with an automatic feeder and crank out thirty or forty pages, to charge $1.25 a page is ridiculous," he says. "Anybody who's been to a Kinko's knows you can get a copy for 6 cents."
And search fees and copying charges aren't the only ways the state makes money off documents that are supposed to be the property of the public. In 1994 Hagedorn introduced successful legislation requiring the Colorado secretary of state to make campaign finance records available via modem. The idea, he says, was to bring public records into the modern age, allowing the public to keep tabs on officials from their home computers.
Instead, Hagedorn complains, the program has moved costs into the next millennium. The secretary of state's office has indeed put campaign records online. But to log onto the "Direct Access System"--a service that comes complete with a promotional brochure touting its ability to save the state's "customers" time and money--users must pay from $300 for three months to $1,000 per year. Those who want to use the system for more than fifteen minutes at a time must fork over an annual fee of $5,000.
Such fees are "extremely prohibitive for the vast majority of people in Colorado," says Ric Bainter, executive director of the watchdog group Colorado Common Cause. The secretary of state's office does provide computer terminals during working hours, notes Bainter. "The free access to terminals you have at [their] office is nice," he says. "But only if you live in Denver or the metro area. What if you live on the Western Slope?"
At least the secretary of state's office offers citizens the option of viewing documents at no charge. Elsewhere, information seekers aren't so lucky. Law enforcement agencies, for instance, keep arrest reports and criminal records under lock and key, typically charging sizable fees to retrieve them. At the Arapahoe County sheriff's office, keeping tabs on bad guys costs a flat $5 per request, plus $1.25 per page.
The state's most accomplished stick-up artists, however, may be the employees in the records room of the state archives, where browsing has grown so expensive that even the Colorado Historical Society has cut back on its work there. The archives, the official depository for all state records, stores documents from state courts, state agencies, school districts and special districts, just to name a few. Some of them are less than a year old. But none of them are cheap.
Colorado residents looking for, say, an ancestor in the 1920 census, must pay a $15 search fee; for out-of-staters, the cost is $25--even if the document consists of a single page. To pull a file and sit and look at it costs $3. Getting a copy made runs $1.25 per page--and patrons don't have the option of making their own copies for less.
The archive does have an excuse for high fees: Lawmakers slashed its appropriation in 1992, forcing the agency to charge "user fees" to stay afloat. "To have to charge a dollar and a quarter or a $25 search fee for a one-page divorce decree--I don't feel good about it," says staff archivist Jim Parker.
Members of the public routinely try to duck the charges, says Parker. It's not uncommon for attorneys or others seeking Supreme Court briefs, for example, to ask the court itself to check the file out and make a copy on its own machines. Those requests are usually in vain, but they're worth a try: Over at the state judicial building, copying looks like a bargain at 75 cents per page.
However, the state's district courts also often charge search fees of their own. According to Ed Zimny, Colorado's director of court services, about half the courts in the state now charge from $3 to $8 just to pull a file. He says the Supreme Court is expected to set an official uniform price of $5 sometime in the next few weeks.
"It seems like in every state agency over the years, as funding has dwindled, people have gone to various fees to support the work we're doing," says Zimny. "None of us really like it."
Courts won't be required to charge the $5 fee, stresses Zimny. What's unclear, though, is whether court clerks will follow the lead of the state's county clerks--who, when the legislature instructed state agencies to charge "not more than $1.25 per page" for copies, took the admonition as an excuse to begin charging the full amount.
The cost of public records is skyrocketing across the country, says David Morrissey, a Colorado State University journalism professor who specializes in public-records issues. "It's a cheap source of revenue in the eyes of a lot of bureaucrats," says Morrissey.
What those government workers often forget, says the professor, is that "these are not the government's records; these are the public's records."
Adds Morrissey: "We paid for these records through our taxes and we paid for these agencies to collect this information through our taxes. Now we're being told we have to pay a third time, and that's outrageous."
Some agencies apparently agree. The court clerks in Denver still don't charge a search fee to look at files. The Colorado Water Conservation Board lets members of the public make copies for ten cents a page. And down at the Commerce City Police Department, records supervisor Terry Eccher routinely waives the agency's $1.25 charge when crime victims show up seeking their own records. "The way I look at it, they've already been ripped off, so they don't need to get ripped off again," she says.
The public, though, can't get in on the best deal of all. That's reserved for bureaucrats themselves, who at the state's in-house "Quick Copy" centers can get copies cranked out by the thousands and delivered to their door. The cost: 2 1/2 cents per page.
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