Wednesday, May 30, 2007 | Go to any Kinko’s in San Diego County and you’ll pay 8 cents per page for a photocopy. Go to any government office, and the price you’ll pay will run the gamut.

The San Diego County Regional Airport Authority will charge you a dime per page. The city of San Diego will charge you a quarter.

Some charge much more: San Diego Superior Court charges 50 cents per page. The county assessor’s office charges $2 per page.

A mishmash of state laws dictates what different government agencies can charge the public for copies. Some are required to charge nearly six times what Kinko’s does. As some states have moved toward adopting uniform charges such as the 25-cent ceiling recently approved in Colorado, document costs in California are still a crapshoot.

A state law known as the California Public Records Act spells out the fees that most government agencies are allowed to charge the public to obtain documents. Inspecting the records is free. But if a member of the public wants copies, they pay solely the direct cost of photocopying — the cost of the paper, toner and copy machine’s depreciation. When obtaining information, the charges add up fast.

But some agencies, such as the state Superior Court, are required to charge more. State law mandates that court documents copies cost 50 cents a page. Not all state laws are so strict, though. Recorder’s offices, which house thousands of deeds to housing titles, are given wide latitude to charge patrons whatever they deem reasonable. The state allows county supervisors to set the fee.

San Diego’s recorder charges patrons $2 for each page of a photocopied deed. That’s twice what Orange County’s assessor charges patrons, though not nearly as much as the bill would be in Los Angeles County, where the first page costs $5 and subsequent pages cost $3.

In San Diego County, the deeds are one of the most expensive photocopies to obtain from a government agency.

“If it’s a general charge that applies no matter what the record is, maybe it’s there to actually discourage requests or discourage larger requests,” said Terry Francke, general counsel for Californians Aware, an open-government advocate. “It’s probably not a profit center.”

The records’ keepers say the public is not paying for the paper, which costs less than a cent per page. They are helping to fund the documents’ long-term preservation.

“It’s not a piece of paper,” said Barbara Parr, finance officer with the San Diego Assessor/Recorder/County Clerk. “It’s the maintenance of that paper, and the direct costs and indirect costs of what goes on that paper. It’s the information that’s on the paper, that’s what you’re buying.”

Most government agencies charge between 10 cents and 25 cents for photocopied records. The airport authority’s dime-per-page cost is the biggest bargain for record-hunters. Chula Vista offers records at 15 cents per page. The Unified Port of San Diego charges 20 cents. The city of San Diego charges 25 cents. Those charges are assessed under the state Public Records Act, which allows governments to bill solely for the direct cost of duplication — not for the staff time spent finding the records.

Even that leaves some room.

“It’s open to interpretation, however you want to interpret it,” said Tim Deuel, the port’s deputy district clerk.

Deuel said he based the port’s 20-cent charge on a 2003 analysis of the exact costs of producing a single photocopy. Thirty seconds of staff time equaled 16.45 cents. Toner cartridge = .0056 cents a page. Copy machine depreciation = .0153 cents. Copy machine maintenance = .0098 cents.

The total came to 20.06 cents. The port, which was doubling its rates at the time, rounded down.

Please contact Rob Davis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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