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Photocopy costs 10 cents or less, but governments still charge 25 cents for open records

The cost of making a single photocopy does not exceed five to 10 cents for most government agencies. Yet most, if not all governments in Colorado, continue to charge the maximum fee allowed by law at 25 cents per page for citizens and journalists who obtain paper photocopies of documents via the Colorado Open Records Act.

CompleteColorado asked seven state and local agencies for a copy of their photocopier maintenance contracts, which usually list the specific cost for the machine to generate one photocopy.

Take for example the Denver Department of Public Safety (DPS), which includes the Denver Police and Fire Departments. According to all of Denver’s copier maintenance contracts, DPS has the ability to produce a photocopy at the cost of $.0044, excluding materials like paper, toner, and electricity. If you price a single sheet of paper at $.015, then DPS can create a photocopy for almost exactly $.02, perhaps a bit more including toner and electricity. Yet the agency stands by charging the maximum fee of $.25.

When asked if they could charge less, DPS only responded by saying they were in compliance with current state statutes.

The result of this overpricing means government agencies can use cost as a deterrent when someone seeks open records. Someone seeking access to 500 pages of documents is faced with a charge of $125, when the same documents could be reproduced and provided to the citizen at a charge of $25 or less, with virtually no financial liability or repercussions to the government agency.

Take another example:

In obtaining the documents used as the basis for this report, CompleteColorado paid $5.25 for 21 pages of photocopies from RTD. However, RTD’s copier contracts show the agency has copiers that can produce a photocopy for $.0032. Adding in the cost of a piece of paper puts RTD’s total cost per page at roughly $.02, but the agency charged the full $.25 when we obtained their copier contracts on January 14.

When asked if RTD would consider voluntarily lowering their photocopy costs for CORA requests, RTD spokesman Scott Reed said, “[our] understanding is that CORA costs as established took into consideration the actual cost to agencies to produce records and copies.  We continue to comply with CORA.”

When we asked these various agencies if they would consider repricing their photocopy costs for open records requests to $.05, most dodged the question or did not answer at all.

Now compare this to a government agency whose mission statement says they want to connect people to information: the Denver Public Library (DPL).

According to documents obtained from DPL, the average cost per photocopy is about $0.078*. DPL charges its patrons $.10 a copy, and DPL told CompleteColorado.com that while they don’t have a hard numerical breakout on profit or loss, they believe their costs are within a half cent to the positive or negative of the $.10 they charge.

Former State Senator Andy McElhany, a Republican from Colorado Springs, authored a bill in 2007 to cap photocopy costs at a quarter per page on open records requests. McElhany said when he authored the bill, most governments testified against it, asking for per page photocopy costs of $.70 or $.90 cents or more. Eventually, the $.25 compromise was struck and has held steady through the years, but McElhany says it would be appropriate for today’s General Assembly to revisit the cost cap.

“We didn’t fix the world when I ran my bill,” McElhany said by phone. “Like I said, I had to compromise to get it through. So yeah, there’s plenty of work left to be done.”

McElhany won a “Friend of the First” award from the Colorado Press Association for his efforts to lower open records costs.

Currently, a bill is moving through the General Assembly that would cap the hourly fee governments can charge for the research and retrieval of open records.

As a final example, New Jersey open records laws cap photocopy costs at five cents for standard “letter” sized photocopies, and seven cents for legal sized paper photocopies.  If the records custodian believes their costs exceed the charges allowable by law, the custodian must provide a rigorous proof of their core costs, including an analysis of the copier maintenance contracts (similar to those obtained for this report) and averaging the cost of a toner costs over the course of a fiscal year.  (For the link provided above, see page 21 of the document.)

*According to the spreadsheet of copier cost analysis, some underused copiers within DPL make the average cost per copy much higher than necessary.

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