After years of overcharging the public, New Jersey agencies, towns, and counties are offering great bargains this month, drastically reducing fees charged to copy documents.
The price of a copy - typically as much as 75 cents a page - has plummeted to a penny or two a page in some jurisdictions. In other places, including Camden and Gloucester Counties, copies are being handed out free.
The frenzy began July 1, the deadline an appeals court set for governments to begin charging "the actual costs of duplicating" a record. Some agency representatives said they were waiting for the Legislature to step in with guidelines and just slash prices to a bare minimum.
Most other states, including Pennsylvania, typically charge 15 to 25 cents a page, while all New Jersey departments and many local governments had been charging 75 cents a page for the first 10 pages, 50 cents for the next 10, and 25 cents for the rest.
The court suggested the Legislature pass a new law to adopt "reasonable" fees to promote transparency and good government, but in lieu of that, public entities would have to calculate rates based on annual paper and toner costs.
On June 28, the Legislature unanimously approved a bill establishing a nickel as the uniform rate (with a two-cent bump for legal-size copies). But Gov. Christie hasn't signed it.
Christie spokesman Sean Conner said the bill was among several the governor was reviewing. A bill sponsor said he had been informed that Christie felt the rate was too low and might issue a conditional veto. Conner said he had not heard that.
Pennsylvania laws say agencies may waive fees for the first 20 pages and then may charge 15 to 25 cents a page. There are exceptions. The Philadelphia police may collect $25 for an accident report, and recorders of deeds may get 50 cents a page.
New Jersey has long overcharged the public for copies, according to Ron Miskoff, president of the state Foundation for Open Government. When he was at a national conference of the Freedom of Information Coalition last summer, "people were gasping when I told them the price in New Jersey," he said. He pegged the average rate elsewhere at 15 cents.
"The price of photocopies is a very important topic for citizen activists" who are "watching the government," Miskoff said.
On its website, the New Jersey chapter of the ACLU warned that government agencies that adopt fees "several times higher than prices at neighborhood copy shops" are sending a message. "At best the public sees the high fees as a way for government to benefit. . . . At worst, it looks like an attempt to hide information and discourage citizens from participating in government."
Five years ago, another appeals panel ruled that the county clerks in Camden and Burlington were overcharging for the use of a self-serve copier. The clerks later reduced fees that had been $1 and 50 cents a page to a nickel.
In June, the Government Records Council issued advisories that recommended public agencies perform calculations based on the annual cost of the paper and toner, divided by the annual copies created. Labor and overhead costs could not be factored in, partly because salaries of public employees are already paid by taxpayers.
The bill awaiting Christie's signature says the new rate will not take effect until 60 days after the governor signs the measure, if he does so.
The Department of Corrections is still charging 75 cents per page. But the Department of Human Services hastily set a rate of a penny a page, while the Department of Environmental Protection, which handles 12,000 to 14,000 requests for documents a year, opted for 3 cents.
Camden County decided just to give out copies for free, while Gloucester County will forgive the first 50 copies and then assess a penny per page. Burlington County is keeping its nickel rate, which was put into effect in 2005 after its county clerk was sued.
"You would probably have to hire a new bureaucracy" to do all the math, said State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D., Bergen), one of the prime sponsors of the bill, explaining how the measure will establish a flat, uniform rate statewide for almost all governmental entities.
"I'm a firm believer that these records belong to the public and the public should have these records available to them at the lowest possible cost," she said.
The bill also says electronic copies of records - provided through e-mail or fax - should be free.