Guilford County is quintupling the price it charges citizens for copies of public records – from 3 cents per copy to 15 cents – even though North Carolina law only allows counties to charge for the actual cost of copies, which in Guilford County is 3 cents per page.

This isn’t the first time Guilford County has charged people more than it cost the county for copies of public records. Up until 14 years ago, Guilford County was charging a whopping 25 cents per page – a matter that became a big controversy for the county at that time before the Board of Commissioners voted to reduce the cost to 3 cents per page.

That debate is the distant past to the current group of Guilford County government officials that consists largely of staff and commissioners who were unaware of the whole conversation over the cost of public records – which is evidently why the move got virtually no attention before it was included as a change in the board’s budget ordinance with the adoption of the $616 million county budget on Thursday, June 21. The change was buried in the large budget ordinance where the amount of school funding and the funding of community nonprofits got most of the attention.

Commissioner Carolyn Coleman, who was on the board a decade and a half ago when the issue of copy costs was a controversial one, did raise an objection at a county budget work session earlier this month when county staff was quickly explaining some changes in the budget.

“The copier place will charge 10 cents, so why would we charge 15?” Coleman asked. “It seems like you’re punishing them for bothering you,”

Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne, whose office gets many of the requests made for public records, told Coleman the county is happy to provide citizens with any records it needs, but this would simply raise the price to make it more in line with costs. He said the county isn’t charging for staff time and he added that, if it did, copies would be more like $2 or $3 a page.

Payne also said that the county emails information to citizens at no charge and nearly everyone who makes a request receives that information in the form of electronic documents.   Payne added that when a citizen requests information in paper form, and it’s only a few pages, the county often waives the charge.

“Frankly most everybody asks for it electronically; they want us to scan it and give it to them, so we charge them zero for that,” Payne said at the county budget work session the week before the budget was adopted.

Other county commissioners didn’t express any views on the item that was in the mix with many others, such as the $200 million plus for school system funding and a host of other multi-million dollar issues under consideration.

NC General Statute 132-b states, “The public records and public information compiled by the agencies of North Carolina government or its subdivisions are the property of the people. Therefore, it is the policy of this State that the people may obtain copies of their public records and public information free or at minimal cost unless otherwise specifically provided by law. As used herein, ‘minimal cost’ shall mean the actual cost of reproducing the public record or public information.”

Under the county’s current contract, each single-sided black and white copy costs the county 1.3 cents per page plus the cost of a sheet of paper. Each department buys its own paper but the cost of copier paper purchased in bulk is close to a cent a page.

Amanda Martin, an attorney who teaches media law at the UNC School of Media and Journalism, said that statute in state law allows a special service charge in very limited cases where there’s an “extensive use” of clerical or information technology staff, but for a standard public records request, a county or other government entity subject to the law is only able to charge the cost of the paper and the actual cost of printing.

Earlier this month, Martin wrote a blog post about the cost of public records where she pointed out that “provision of public records is part of public employees’ duties, not something added onto their duties,” and she added that some governments have attempted to charge “sometimes outrageous fees to fulfill public records requests.”

Martin wrote, “The public records law says that you can only be charged the ‘actual cost’ for the provision of a public record. [NC General Statute 132-1(b)] “Actual cost” has a specific meaning: ‘direct, chargeable costs related to the reproduction of a public record as determined by generally accepted accounting principles and does not include costs that would have been incurred by the public agency if a request to reproduce a public record had not been made’. … So they can charge you the cost of the paper and the ink and the power to run the copier, but they cannot charge you for the time of the secretary, who would have been working that day anyway, or a pro rata portion of the rent or anything else beyond the – you guessed it – actual cost.”

The new records charges for Guilford County, which goes into effect on July 1, will not affect the cost of documents copied at the Guilford County Register of Deeds office since the fees for obtaining copies of those documents are set by the state.

In recent years, county staff members have grumbled over some cases of extensive wide-ranging public records requests that they say eat up a great deal of staff time. Last fall, the county hired Worley Smith to fill a newly created county communications manager position that was, among other things, meant to help the clerk to the board’s office respond to those records requests.