Tech company protests electronic records fees

From the Idaho Business Review

by By Eddie Kovsky

Jack Sjostrom’s company, Sentry Dynamics, collects information on Idaho properties and compiles it into a software application. His customers can access it through a Web browser to learn about individual parcels, to find maps and to facilitate real estate transactions all over the state.

Rather than traveling to courthouses or searching Web sites, Sentry Dynamics customers use the software to access data in one place.

It’s not that easy for Sjostrom. In fact, some public agencies are making things more and more difficult for him and others to stay in business.

Access to public electronic data isn’t always free or even provided for a reasonable fee. The cost of obtaining geographic information system (GIS) data varies widely from county to county, Sjostrom said.

Basic GIS information from Latah County is 10 cents per parcel. Order data for more than 15,000 parcels and it’s a flat fee of $1,500. Throw in ownership information about the parcels and it costs 5 cents more per parcel.

Want your data to include roads, the rural address, zoning districts or precincts? Each requires additional fees.

“That parcel information is a very small file that fits on an email attachment,” Sjostrom said. “The cost of copying on a CD and mailing it to us shouldn’t be more than $25.”

In contrast, Ada County shares map data amongst various agencies, said Mike McClenahan, administrative services manager. Basic map data is available through a subscription, he said. A CD with all parcel data is available each quarter for $100, said Anne Kawalec, land records supervisor.

Some departments create maps for specific projects, usually for internal use.

“But if somebody asked for that, we’d probably just give it to them,” McClenahan said.

Like Ada County, Nez Perce County charges a few hundred a year to copy information, Sjostrom said. But Bonner County refused to share GIS data until Sjostrom sued them, he said.

“Now we pay $150 per request,” Sjostrom said

In Kootenai County, access to GIS information is free, he said.

Idaho law has several statutes covering access to public information. Idaho Statute 9-338 states that a public agency can’t charge a fee that exceeds the cost of copying information.

But there is a specific exception to county governments and GIS data. Statute 31-875 (2) allows a county to collect fees not just for the release of public information, but also for the development and maintenance of the system itself.

Sjostrom thinks the laws just allow county commissioners to be creative about their pricing. He said he has taken up the issue with prosecuting attorneys in several counties, but it hasn’t gotten him very far.

“They say it’s very costly to install and support these GIS systems and they need funding to support that,” Sjostrom said. “But I question that because it’s no different from any other management system the county uses. Why is the mapping system unique?”

Not all counties use the same systems or have the same level of sophistication, so using fees to cover development costs is justified, said Dan Chadwick, executive director of the Idaho Association of Counties.

“Every county is trying to make an honest estimation of what providing the information costs,” he said. “Not all the data is compiled in the same way. Systems are part of the cost of providing information.”

Sjostrom is far from satisfied with that answer.

“Taxes pay for equipment,” he said. “All we should pay for is material and staff time.”

Sjostrom has decided to take up his grievance with the state legislature. When members of the legislature visited Post Falls last month, he met them in a hallway and handed out a letter explaining his predicament:

“I fully understand the intent of this law as it was written prior to the technological advancements we are now accustomed to … It was a way for counties to accommodate the costs of technology advancement and new data development. This justification however, does not conform with our system today …”

So far, Sjostrom has only heard from State Sen. Brad Little, R-Emmett.

“I thought we’d fixed this a year ago,” Little said. “I don’t think we should expect we’re going to provide a source of income to buy new equipment and personnel. We need to ask the counties to sit down with the title companies and everybody that uses those services and come up with some reasonable fee. We might have to write legislation, but I’d much rather have them reach something reasonable on their own accord.”

Aside from the implications for his own business, Sjostrom believes the current fees for public records affect everyone.

“We don’t feel it’s fair that five or 10 individuals asking for this data have to pay,” he said. “Does each one of those people have to pay thousands? Does the 11th person get it for free? There needs to be some systematic approach to this at a state wide level.”

From the Idaho Business Review

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