Stanislaus County has fought a legal battle over the clerk-recorder’s charges for furnishing copies of official records to the public.
A group called California Public Records Research Inc., which insists the fees are too high, filed suit in 2014 and scored a legal victory last year when the state’s Fifth District Court of Appeal overturned the Superior Court’s dismissal of the lawsuit.
CPRR claims that average individuals, who need a copy of a record, are being grossly overcharged.
The appellate court said there was insufficient evidence in a 2001 county fee study to support the clerk-recorder’s longstanding fees of $3 for the first page and $2 for each additional page.
The county was ordered to reconsider the fees charged to the public and base them on “direct and indirect costs” as required by a section of law. A county-hired consultant completed a new fee study in February on the costs of maintaining the records and furnishing copies. The county auditor-controller reviewed the study before the new evidence-based fees were recommended to the Board of Supervisors.
Supervisors approved the new charges Tuesday. And guess what? They are much higher: $6.75 for the first page and $3 for each additional one.
California Public Records Research obviously disagrees with the fee increase. The group contends a reasonable fee is $1 per page or no more than $5 for a document. Two leaders of the group in Southern California did not return messages seeking comment.
County officials say there was no intent to boost fee income in the clerk-recorder’s office; rather, the issue was forced by the lawsuit. CPRR has brought similar lawsuits against at least nine other counties.
Deputy County Counsel Deirdre McGrath said the clerk-recorder can’t be expected to charge the same as Kinkos for making copies. The documents in question are property deeds, deeds of trust, liens, maps and other property records kept in a public repository. The records prove the chain of ownership for real property going back for decades, which serves as protection against fraud or even government seizure of property.
The clerk-recorder gives the public access to digitized images of records back to 1920. The office on I Street in Modesto has records on microfilm for public view and stores another version at an off-site facility. An employee might take extra time marking out private information before making copies of a record for a customer, officials said.
Employees handled 5,400 document requests in the 2015-16 budget year, producing almost 20,000 pages for customers. A report this week said 85 percent of the copies provided for customers were one to five pages, which would cost up to $18.75 under the new fees.
Fewer than 1 percent were more than 25 pages.
To come up with the cost per page, MGT Consulting looked at costs of copy time, supervision, counter time, equipment, ink and toner, paper, printer, storage services, data processing and software licensing. A whole list of items were included in the indirect costs, such as salaries, equipment maintenance and office supplies. The total cost was $13.06 per page.
Auditor-Controller Lauren Klein took a more conservative view of direct and indirect costs, which lowered the rate. The new fees could become effective in 45 days.
One might guess the increase would bring howls from the real estate industry. But CPRR points out that title companies purchase recorded documents from the county clerk-recorders in the state and maintain up-to-date copies of documents. The group suggested the wholesale rate charged to title companies is less than 1 cent per page.
Those “buying copies of at the Recorder’s office are, by and large, average individuals who need a copy for some legal reason and are charged outrageous prices,” CPRR President Clifton Hodges wrote in a letter last month to Supervisor Jim DeMartini.
The plaintiffs maintain the county can base the fees only on costs of providing the copies or services, as spelled out in court opinions regarding user fees. The group noted that Kings County reduced its fees following last year’s appellate court decision on the Stanislaus case.
Ken Carlson: 209-578-2321, @KenCarlson16