Washoe County copy moguls

Are high copy costs discouraging citizen participation?

Duplicate, duplicate, duplicate. The county library system spit out a couple hundred thousand copies in the last fiscal year.

Duplicate, duplicate, duplicate. The county library system spit out a couple hundred thousand copies in the last fiscal year.

Photo by David Robert

County employees, often acting under advice from the Washoe County District Attorney’s office, set up administrative and financial roadblocks to make it difficult for people to get documents that Nevada law entitles them to.

And Gary Schmidt—who’s long been a thorn in the side of county officials—says that the prices charged by local agencies for copies of public documents prove it.

“The real issue is that the county does not respect the public’s right to its own records, and it’s clearly demonstrated by the county’s cavalier attitude toward copy costs,” Schmidt says. “The real issue is bureaucratic arrogance by entrenched officials.”

Schmidt isn’t the only one to notice the problem.

A report prepared by Darin Conforti, Senior Fiscal Analyst for Washoe County, says that some county departments—including the Assessor, County Manager, Human Resources, Law Library, Registrar of Voters and Sheriff’s office, which each charge 15 cents per page—may be charging more than is allowed by Nevada Revised Statute 239.

Schmidt, owner of the Reindeer Lodge on Mount Rose Highway, says that Washoe County bureaucrats routinely deny people access to public records. This isn’t just vapid whining. Schmidt recently won a lawsuit against the county, lending judicial credibility to his argument.

In December, Schmidt prevailed against Washoe County in the suit that alleged that he was denied access to public records. The county appealed, and the case is now at the Nevada Supreme Court.

Nevada law says that government entities, unless the law makes specific exceptions, may not charge more for copies than the actual cost of producing the documents, which includes machine and paper costs for copy machines the county leases. One example of an exception is the County Clerk. According to NRS 19.013, the clerk must charge $1 per page.

Schmidt says Conforti’s report proves the county was out of compliance with state law, with one heading that reads: “Actual Copy Costs are Lower Than the Standard 15¢ Fee.”

Again, that is subject to interpretation. Since 67 percent of departments don’t charge for copies, the county’s view of NRS 239 is that copy costs of departments that don’t charge can be passed to departments that do. For example, a person who buys a copy through the assessor’s office would be subsidizing a person who gets a free copy at the public defender’s office.

Conforti says that the report shows the county is doing its job and following its general practice of examining its own policies and procedures.

“I think it shows great management that after only two years, we’ve gone in to re-evaluate actual costs,” he says. “The perspective that the county has been overcharging for years is one perspective. It’s the perspective of Mr. Schmidt. It would require a historic analysis to prove that. It would be presumptive to take 1999 costs and apply them to earlier years.”

Conforti notes that due to technology advancements, copy costs have come down over the years, so the higher charges from years past may have been in line with actual costs.

Washoe County Commissioners originally adopted the ordinance, which set the 15-cent fee in 1977. Ordinance 359 was repealed in 1999, at which time departments were given the “general guidance not to charge a fee in excess of 15 cents per page,” according to the report, which further states that “nearly all departments referenced the 1999 memo from the County Manager as the authorizing policy for the amount to charge.”

Schmidt notes in a letter to Washoe County officials and commissioners that from 1977 to 1999, some departments were charging more than the 15 cents set by the county’s own ordinances, some up to 50 cents per page.

“They’ve been violating the law for more than 20 years,” Schmidt says. “Now, they’ve done a report that shows it. They’re going to have to swallow hard and do something about it.”

Different departments have different actual costs. According to the report, those costs (based on an 8.5-inch by 11-inch photocopy) are: County Manager, 3 cents; Risk Management/ Budget, 4 cents; Public Works, 5 cents; Community Development, 3 cents; and Assessor’s Office, 3 cents.

The pennies add up. From August 2000 to March 2001, there were 471,464 copies made in the Community Development office. Most copies are made for the county’s internal use. Conforti says the numbers actually boil down to nickels and dimes.

“I would be surprised if it was 10,000 copies [made for the public per year for all county departments],” he says.

That number may be a little light. In the last fiscal year, the Washoe County Library system has collected $23,734 at a dime a copy. After costs, according to Marilyn Matylinsky, library assistant at the Reno reference desk, that puts the system in the hole $4,748. At 10 cents per page, that’s 237,340 copies.

“One thing to remember is that we don’t charge for the first 10 copies of computer printouts,” she says. “It’s 10 cents per sheet thereafter.”

The proceeds of computer printouts weren’t factored into the total, she says.

Other government entities may also be treading over the line with the amount they charge for copies, according to the report. The Carson City Manager charges 25 cents per page; the Supreme Court Law Library charges a dime per page; and the Supreme Court Clerk charges 50 cents per page.

The city of Reno gives the first two pages free, and charges 25 cents per page thereafter; however, there is a specific resolution to allow this.

The city of Sparks charges 5 cents per copied page.

And Washoe County isn’t the only county charging more than allowed. The Clark County Assessor’s office charges $1 per copy for 8.5-inch by 11-inch photocopies. The Clark County Community Development office also charges a dollar.

Tammy Hicks, administrative secretary for Community Development in Clark County, says the charges were designed to discourage people from getting documents from that office.

“The dollar price is set up to be a deterrent,” she says. “We aren’t really set up to make tons and tons of copies. Would you pay $1 for something you can get somewhere else a lot cheaper?”

Carla Pearson, manager of Clark County Community Development, was on vacation and could not respond to the assertion that the price was set high to deter the public from getting copies of public records.

As part of the Finance Department report, Conforti makes a recommendation designed to bring the county into compliance with state law:

“Washoe County should establish a written policy to waive the fee charged for copy costs at all departments except those departments with high public demand for copies of public records. For departments with high public demand for copies of public records, the County should establish a policy to charge a specific fee equal to the aggregate actual cost to produce a copy at those departments during the preceding fiscal year.”

Schmidt says that while the difference of a dime per page doesn’t make much of a difference to someone in his financial situation, it could be a problem for poor people.

“The economically disadvantaged could go in for 100 pages, that’s $15,” he says. “That $10 difference might be enough to prevent someone from participating in their government.”

Washoe County Manager Katy Singlaub says that any copy-charge changes will have to be made by the Board of Commissioners.

“When there is an ordinance adopted by the board, the board would have to change it," she says. "But that’s not necessarily the case. The board may not vote to change it."