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Budget problems prompt Fairfax to charge for info

It's not surprising that cash-strapped localities are looking for ways to save. What is surprising is that only one Washington-area jurisdiction is changing its policy regarding charging for public information requests from news organizations while others are not.

Last week The Washington Post inquired about getting a list of salaries of public employees from Fairfax County, an almost annual tradition. For many years The Post, in its weekly Extra print editions, published a county-by-county look at each local government's payroll figures. In recent years those stories have become less frequent, but the information still is used in the reporting and writing of other stories on the local government beat, namely stories that deal with county budgets.

But this year, The Post was told that the information, which had been provided free of charge through a waiver granted to most media organizations, would come at a price.

The Fairfax County salary figures, depending on the way they are analyzed and distributed, would cost between $150 and $600, according to Merni Fitzgerald, a county spokeswoman who received a similar request for the information from the Washington Examiner.

The Examiner, Fitzgerald said, decided not to pay for the information.

Virginia's Freedom of Information Act allows governments to charge for reasonable costs incurred in collecting the requested records. But other jurisdictions say they're not changing their policies regarding FOIA requests from media organizations.

In Virginia, Loudoun County typically waives fees if the cost is below $20, said spokesman Jim Barnes. Otherwise, the fees stand. Prince William County doesn't charge for media information requests unless a "huge amount of staff or paper" are used, said spokeswoman Nikki Brown.

"More often than not, we don't charge," Brown said.

In Maryland, Montgomery County doesn't charge for requests from the press "since they all ask for a waiver of fees," according to county spokesman Patrick Lacefield. Prince George's County spokesman James P. Keary says the county always has charged for research and copying, regardless of the applicant, but that if the media request is a simple one, say a copy of a report or a list of salaries, it is provided free of charge.

So if most other Washington-area localities aren't changing their FOIA policies during equally tough budget times, why is Fairfax?

Fitzgerald notes that every local government deals with FOIA requests differently and that state code allows for the reimbursement of costs. For the salary FOIA, for example, Fairfax is not charging for the time spent by county personnel to pull together the public records. It is charging for the "computer runs" used to process the data.

"Last budget year, our economic situation prompted a reduction in force and many service and programming cuts, and we will see next week what is being proposed for this year," Fitzgerald said. "Nothing is off the table -- and user fees, which charge folks for services performed, whether RECenter fees or fees for FOIA requests, are one way to assist in the effort to balance the budget."

By Derek Kravitz  |  February 15, 2010; 10:56 AM ET
Categories:  Fairfax County  
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Comments

Those of us who deal with Fairfax County Public Schools know this reality. We are quoted costs from hundreds to, in a few cases, thousands of dollars for what otherwise seems to be routine documents and data that should be posted online.

Posted by: mherd1 | February 15, 2010 10:46 PM | Report abuse

I have to pay for GIS information from the county -- why should the Post be treated any differently? The Post is a for-profit organization whining that they are not entitled to valuable staff time for free. Maybe editors from the Washington Post, in their time of an enormous budget crisis, would like to explain to Fairfax County how it is possible to give something away for free and still make a buck.

Posted by: slydell | February 16, 2010 8:04 AM | Report abuse

Post : We'd like all your salary information so we can run an article dragging you through the mud about how much you overpay your employees.

Fairfax: Ok, but it'll cost you. You'll have to pay for the staff time used to compile the data.

Post : No, that's ok. We'll just run an article dragging you through the mud about charging for FOIA requests. Our drag the local government through the mud quota has now been met for the week.

Posted by: Mike40 | February 16, 2010 8:36 AM | Report abuse

Well, I see all the Fairfax County government workers are posting their pleasant comments. Shouldn't y'all be performing "computer runs" to earn some extra cash for the county, rather than posting about mud-slinging?

Posted by: nogov4me | February 16, 2010 9:33 AM | Report abuse

Drag thru the mud? Do you mean budget overrun has nothing to do employ too many county workers? Get back to your desk and do some work. Show your tax payers the reason why you guys should be on payroll.

Posted by: drkly | February 16, 2010 12:16 PM | Report abuse

VA needs to hop aboard board the e-train, like MD and a lot of MD's counties are. All public land records in MD are available online for free, to registered users, and many other public records can also be accessed or at least requested for free or a nominal price. It's an up-front investment that pays off many times over in the long run, but sadly politics seems only to favor the short-sighted.

Posted by: marklandterrapins | February 16, 2010 1:32 PM | Report abuse

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