Saturday, July 22, 2017

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New Jersey to Cut the Fee to Copy Government Records

Last summer I had the experience of learning how cost-prohibitive it is to obtain local budget records for Woodbridge, New Jersey.

Only the current year budget is online. Previous year budgets were not available electronically. So I went to City Hall expecting they would be available to the public. Instead, I was asked to file an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request with no guarantee the request would be fulfilled.

The costs were jaw-dropping. The first 10 pages cost 75 cents. Pages 11-20 dropped to 50 cents a page. And for each page thereafter the cost was 25 cents.

For 10 years of municipal budgets I would be charged roughly $242.50.

Undeterred, I went across the street to the Woodbridge Public Library. The librarians were incredibly helpful. They carted forty years of  budgets to my table. And, told me if I called ahead they would have them ready should I want to do future  research.

I spent about an hour copying at fifteen cents a page. Turns out, I only needed five pages from each document. (Something I could not have specified through an OPRA. In order to know what pages I needed I had to look at the documents first.)

I spent $30 for 40 years of specific budget data.

A New Jersey court has ruled that the state should reduce copying fees at state agencies. It seems my complaint is shared by good government groups and many New Jersey residents.

While reducing copying fees grants greater accessibility to public records, why not go a step further and put more online? Is it that costly for New Jersey’s local governments to keep a record of budget data on their websites? In the time it took to photocopy 40 years of budgets the pages could have been scanned into a computer.

Granted my fiscal history of Woodbridge is incomplete. I could not find the school district’s budgets at the library. But it is a start which you can check out at Sunshine Review.