By Steve Hunley

Evidently the Knoxville News-Sentinel has taken up the cause of allowing folks to copy public documents with cell phones.  According to the Sentinel, this is a fundamental aspect of transparency required for the public good.  The Sentinel is commending the efforts of State Senator Mike Bell, a Riceville Republican.  Senator Bell is an advocate of allowing folks to copy public documents via cell phone.  It all sounds mighty nice, but the reality is a bit different.  Not that the Sentinel has ever refused to support jacking up taxes, local or otherwise —always in the name of the public good, mind you—but rarely ever considers just who pays the freight oftentimes.  The same people always pay the freight: the taxpayers.  A good many public offices subsidize their operations through the collection of fees for such things as copies.

Being a businessman, I know that copy machines cost more than one might think to lease and operate; there is the cost of the lease, as well as maintenance and toner.  There is also the additional cost of staff.  There is also yet another cost when dealing with public documents: archiving.  Obviously for documents to exist, they must be maintained and preserved.  Not only must they be preserved, but kept in some sort of order to be readily found when needed.  Documents have to be moved to make space for newer documents and all the documents have to be kept with their integrity intact.  I’ve heard some people complain that government offices charging $1 per page for copies is outrageous when in truth, it likely doesn’t cover the cost to the office in supplies and personnel.

There is no law that gives citizens the right to copy everything they want endlessly, nor should there be.  What the law does provide for now is any citizen has the right to inspect, review and copy any public document they wish.  Likewise government offices have the right to charge for copies as they should.  At the very least, charging for copies helps to defray the cost to taxpayers in running a particular office.  The notion of allowing people to snap whatever they wish with their cell phones is “cost effective” is just not true.  It certainly isn’t cost effective to the taxpayers.  Lawyers, for instance, charge clients for copying documents and I don’t imagine for a moment that would change if they used their cell phones and most don’t simply charge the cost.  Most of the media doesn’t like the idea of being charged for copies either.

Every dollar lost to a public office, whether it is state or local, has to be made up by the taxpayers if it is going to keep running.  Nor are legislators averse to tacking on fees to be collected by local offices, sometimes to benefit particular groups.  The legislators don’t care that it increases the work load for oftentimes understaffed offices, yet people wonder why some have a hard time turning over excess fees.

The law as it exists today does not prevent anyone from acquiring any document available to the public; they simply have to PAY for it.  There are some gadflies out there who demand to see and copy hundreds, if not thousands, of documents.  The Sentinel huffs that many offices charge more than it costs to run a copy machine.  Last time I looked, a copy of the Sentinel was not free.  The idea that the only cost is running a copy machine is foolish.  I doubt the folks at the Sentinel would say printing a paper is no more complicated than running the presses.  Even if that were true, what’s wrong with charging a fair fee to defray costs to the taxpayers?  I realize the Sentinel doesn’t much care what the taxpayers have to pick up the tab for, but a lot of taxpayers do.  These folks wanting to copy documents ought to pay their own way and not be subsidized by the taxpayers any more than they are now.  Nobody is being denied access to public documents and records; this isn’t about transparency and accountability.  It’s about convenience and having somebody else pay for it.

Ultimately, you and I are paying their way.  Don’t we do enough of that now?