Friday, April 29, 2016
C.A. Says County Failed to Justify Public Records Cost
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
Stanislaus County failed to justify the fees it charges for copying public records and must reconsider and potentially make refunds, the Fifth District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
The court reinstated an action by California Public Records Research, Inc., which sought a writ of mandate compelling the county to reduce its fees of $3 for the first page and $2 for each additional page. The plaintiff claims the county violates a Government Code section requiring the fees be set “in an amount necessary to recover the direct and indirect costs of providing the product or service,” and said there was no reason it should have to pay $33 for a copy of a standard deed of trust.
Stanislaus Superior Court Judge William Mayhew denied relief, holding that the county’s Board of Supervisors acted within its discretion in setting the fees.
Justice Donald Franson Jr., however, said the county failed to present sufficient evidence to show that the fee schedule it adopted in 2001 represents its current, actual costs of copying and producing the documents.
Franson said the county apparently relied on a study that was based on averaging per-document, rather than per-page, costs.
The study cited an official’s estimate that it took three minutes of clerical time to copy an average document, and that the average cost of copying a document was $2.97, or 99 cents per minute of clerical time.
The problem, the jurist said, was that “the study did not explain how the $2.97 in costs related to the per page recommendations.”
He gave the examples of a two-page document for which the county would charge $5, a seven-page record with a $15 charge, a 22-page instrument with a $45 charge, and a 30-page copy for which $61 would be charged.
“[T]he record contains no evidence that documents with these page lengths require that much staff time to copy and process,” Franson wrote. “The absence of evidence about the amount of time spent copying the second and subsequent pages of a document renders it impossible to apply the time-based methodology set forth in the 2001 study to calculate the costs to County of providing copies of those pages. Therefore, we have eliminated the time-based methodology as a way to support the fees charged for copies of the second and subsequent pages of an official document.”
Nor, he said, did the county—which rejected the plaintiff’s argument that it should charge something comparable to the 15 cents per page charged by commercial copy services, saying its copying process was more complex—present an alternative basis for calculating the fees the way it did.
The county, he acknowledged, has some leeway in setting fees, since the statute allows it to recover its “indirect costs.” But such costs, he said, must “be reasonably attributed to (i.e., reasonably related to) providing copies and excludes costs that cannot be reasonably attributed to the service of providing copies.”
On remand, he said, the trial court should issue a writ directing the county to establish a new fee schedule based on its direct costs, including “the amounts paid for (a) the paper, ink and toner used to make the copy, (b) the photocopier, including its operation and maintenance, and (c) the salary and benefits of the person making the copy,” and its indirect costs, including “(a) salary and benefits of all staff necessary for operating the clerk-recorder’s office, (b) lease payments for the building and equipment, (c) costs of utilities, services contracts, computers, equipment, and furniture; (d) maintenance and depreciation of office equipment; (e) office cleaning; and (f) insurance, office supplies and necessary travel expenses.”
In an unpublished portion of the opinion, Franson agreed with the trial judge that as long as copying fees do not exceed the county’s costs, they are not special taxes and need not be approved by local voters.
The case is California Public Records Research, Inc. v. County of Stanislaus, F07061.
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