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Banning Taxpayer Cameras

by Robert Franco | 2008/05/27 Reprinted with permission.

According to an article on DodgeCity.com, Kansas counties are looking for ways to deal with visitors using digital cameras to escape copy fees in registers of deeds offices. Abstractors, and other title professionals, are experiencing a weak market right now and as they try to control costs, steep copy fees may be an easy expense to cut with a little bit of technology and creativity.  Of course, the lost revenue to the county may present a new problem for the county offices.  So what is currently being done to regulate the use of cameras in the courthouses?

Brenda Pogue, register of deeds in Ford County, has asked her county commissioners if there was some way the county can regulate the use of cameras. 

Ford County charges 50 cents per copy when curious residents come in looking for Public Records. However, more and more people are circumventing those costs and simply photographing the records.

Brenda Pogue, register of deeds for Ford County, said it wouldn't be a problem except more and more people are bringing their cameras in, plugging in extra batteries and spending the entire day taking photos.

"I had a lawyer in there the other day," Pogue told the county commissioners Monday. "He saw a couple taking photos. As he was leaving, he turned to me and told me he was going to do that next time."

 

Some counties, such as Finney County, have completely banned cameras from the office.  Others, like Seward County, have begun to charge a fee of $25 per day, per camera.  The fee is apparently charged because "at least one group had laid the books extra flat, the binding had begun to fray."  The fee is to help maintain the books.

At least one county clerk has spoke out against banning cameras, stating that "they are open records, and it's a digital world."

We had similar issues in Ohio when the state doubled the statutory rates charged by county officials to fund a housing program.  When copies went from $1.00 per page to $2.00, people started using digital cameras and pen scanners.  Some county officials, looking to protect their copy revenue, objected with claims that the books were being harmed by the camera flash and light emitted from the pen scanners (which was powered by a teeny-tiny watch battery). 

Before anyone really had to deal with the issue of whether the counties could ban the technology, someone requested an Attorney General's opinion on the legality of charging more than the actual cost of reproduction for Public Records. (see "Correction" comment below).  According the the opinion, if a county employee made the copy, they were required to charge the statutory fee of $2.00.  However, if the county permitted the visitor to make their own copy they could only charge actual cost - usually between 10 and 25 cents per page.  Most counties allow visitors to make their own copies.  But, a few counties, desperately trying to hold on to their copy revenue, require their employees to make the copies.

This increase in copy fees didn't work out so well for most counties.  Our copy bills went from a few hundred dollars a month, to ten or fifteen dollars. 

Personally, I believe that fifty cents per page, as they charge in Ford County, is a reasonable fee for copies.  When you consider the extra work involved in trying to use cameras and portable scanners, it isn't worth getting too creative.  You might as well just pay the fifty cents and get a good, clean copy.  However, much beyond that and the savings may be significant enough to warrant trying alternative methods of reproduction.

I don't believe that counties should ban cameras.  The documents are public record and if you are permitted to view them, you should be able to snap a picture if you want to.  There doesn't seem to be any real harm, despite claims that laying the books extra flat damages the binding.  Banning cameras is obviously a move to protect their revenue from copies.  The sad thing is that counties across the country are practically giving away the records through bulk sales to large corporations who pay a fraction of a penny per copy. (See Courthouse for Sale. Cheap!)

While fighting local title professionals, and genealogists, over fifty cents per page for a few dozen copies each day - many counties are sending CD's containing up to 100,000 pages for as little as $10.  That doesn't seem to make much sense to me.  The resources wasted trying to keep local visitors from saving twenty or thirty dollars is insane when you consider that some counties are losing up to $50,000 per CD in bulk sales.

Perhaps fighting the large corporations, and their attorneys, who are more than willing to file lawsuits to enforce their document requests under the Freedom of Information Act is just too daunting.  But it seems rather disingenuous to fight to hold on to a revenue stream that is minuscule in comparison to what they are selling out the backdoor in the form of bulk sales for as little as a tenth of penny per page.


About the Author

Robert A. Franco has been in the title industry for nearly 15 years in the state of Ohio. The owner of VersaTitle, a full service abstracting and title company, and the founder and president of Source of Title, a Web site devoted to providing media and marketing services to the title industry, Franco has dedicated much of his professional career to furthering the role and significance of title examiners in the title insurance industry.  You can read more from Robert's blog or write him at rfranco@sourceoftitle.com .

 

 

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