ANNAPOLIS – As more public records become available in electronic format, state agencies are hard-pressed to provide information affordably and still make ends meet, officials say.
But Maryland business people who use government records to provide information services believe they are paying too much to access records that should be freely available.
The matter surfaced this week at a meeting of the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee, which is reviewing last session’s changes in the Maryland Public Information Act to make electronic records available to the public “at a reasonable cost.”
Devin J. Doolan of the Real Estate Information Providers Association argued that governmental agencies should not try to finance their operations with revenue generated from information that belongs to the people of Maryland.
“The charges that an agency should impose on the public ought to recapture the direct cost for the reproduction of the document” and nothing more, he told the committee.
In the real estate information industry, companies currently pay royalties to the Maryland Office of Planning to package and resell state tax data and maps. The fees, averaging about $25 per book published by the companies, cover about 20 percent of the office’s $500,000 in annual data expenses, said Michael Lettre, assistant director.
“Property maps are copyrighted by the state and they are licensed to the companies to sell them for a profit,” Lettre explained. “Because the companies are gaining from this in a commercial sense, they have an obligation” to compensate taxpayers through payments to the state.
Doolan disagreed in principle with the notion of having a copyright on state property. All government records ultimately belong to the citizens of Maryland, and therefore should be freely available in every sense, he argued.
Joseph Jenkins, vice president of the Timonium real estate data company SpecPrint Inc., sells tax map books for about $320 each, making the royalty rate per book about 7.8 percent. However, Jenkins says the rate actually is much higher because only part of the book’s content comes from the state (the rest is information about property owners). He agrees with Doolan that the state’s royalty system asks companies to shoulder far too high a percentage of the data production costs.
“We pay $45,000 a year for all the maps in Maryland” in CD- ROM format, he said. “Supposing every CD cost $100 to make — that would only come to about $2,300.”
Still, Leslie Hearn, Maryland’s Chief Information Officer, pointed out that the rapid automation of state records is stretching the state’s already overburdened general tax fund.
“Not everything can be provided for free,” he said, “because the state, like other public institutions, doesn’t have all the resources needed.”
Lettre added that many state agencies lately have been saddled with the responsibility for implementing this automation without receiving extra funds to carry out the changeover.
For example, in 1996, his agency received a mandate from the governor’s office to offer new electronic real estate maps called Maryland PropertyView, but wasn’t given funds to run the service, Lettre said. The agency needed to charge higher fees to users to make up the cost.
“The expectation was that we would market PropertyView to other state government agencies and the private sector,” eventually covering the remaining 80 percent of the office’s half-million-dollar budget, Lettre said. “But those transitions [to the electronic format] can be expensive.”
James J. Doyle Jr., an attorney for the Maryland-Delaware- District of Columbia Press Association, conceded that state agencies will need more money to automate their records, but argued that assigning fees without consulting the Legislature is not the way to raise it.
“If you have a problem with funding, ask the governor for funding,” Doyle said, “or ask the General Assembly for the ability to charge” for documents, rather than assigning fees arbitrarily.
However, Hearn said that if distributors of state data waited for funding from the General Assembly, no one would have access to the information in the meantime. Using the royalty fee system has been the only way to keep the data coming.
“If the Legislature was going to fund the program that would impact the level of pricing,” he said, but “without the funding there’s really no option but to charge for that information.”
Lettre added that the planning office’s authority to collect royalties comes directly from laws governing state-owned copyrights. He also doubts whether the office would be able to get more funds for data collection in the foreseeable future. “We don’t expect the government to pay any more than they have in the past” to support the new records, he said. “We’re just trying to break even.” -30-