HARTFORD, CT — The first piece of publicly available legislation for the 2020 session seeks to eliminate a $20 fee that cities and towns can charge to photograph or scan documents with a smartphone or handheld scanner.
The legislation, introduced by Rep. Michael Winkler, D-Vernon, would also lower the copying fees from 50 cents or $1 per page to 15 cents per page.
Winkler said he came up with 15 cents per page because that’s what Staples charges and they are a company turning a profit. He said if a town charges 15 cents per page it’s all profit because they don’t have to hire people to do it.
He also makes the argument that allowing someone to copy a document with their phone is much faster for staff in these town offices.
Last year, a similar bill received a public hearing and made it through the Government Administration and Elections Committee, but was sent by House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz to the Planning and Development Committee a day before their deadline where it never got called for a vote, Winkler recalled Thursday in a phone interview.
“It might get fairer treatment this year,” Winkler added.
But he was quick to point out that cities and towns have a lot of clout in the Legislative Office Building.
Cities and towns who collect the fees are unlikely to forgo the money without a fight.
Last year, New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart submitted testimony in opposition to the bill.
She said if the legislation passed her city would be “losing out on tens of thousands of dollars each year.”
“While we don’t want to burden users, there needs to be a reasonable fee for such services in order to maintain consistent and reasonable services to all users,” she added.
She said the town clerk in New Britain maintains more than 1.3 million land records.
The Connecticut Town Clerks Association testified that it would hurt their ability to preserve the records.
“Our offices must bear the costs of housing and storing theses public records. State mandated preservation procedures include the purchase of archival paper and protective binders, microfilming, storage and temperature/humidity controls for our vaults,” Groton Town Clerk Betsy Moukawsher and Canterbury Town Clerk Natalie Ellston said in written testimony last year. “This raised bill will further erode the critical funds we need to continue to preserve and protect these important documents for generations to come.”
New Britain City Clerk Mark Bernacki said since cell phone cameras have gotten better, they have “already experienced a loss in document preservation revenue due to the misuse of cell phones.”
Winkler pointed out that towns could still charge for copies of documents, but he doesn’t believe it’s fair to charge someone to take photos with their phone.
Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, pointed to the Town of Wallingford’s legislative agenda which asks local lawmakers to oppose this type of legislation.
“Do not support legislation that would allow scanning of public documents for free,” the legislative agenda for the town states.
The document goes onto say “Searchers would realize that instead of paying $1.00 per copy, they could scan or take photos of copies for free.”
The town of Wallingford collects $31,770 in copying fees per year. Cities like New Haven collect around $102,000 and Stamford collects around $92,000, according to the document.
Winkler said a survey of about 140 of the 169 towns estimated the total annual amount of copying fees at $3.5 million.
Candelora said by allowing someone to take a photo with their phone you’re freeing up a town clerk from having to make a copy for them. However, he argued the state would need to make towns whole for the loss of revenue.
“Access to documents is sort of a base right we should be giving people and when we’re charging $20 to copy that’s a significant barrier for people to get a hold of documents,” Candelora said. “So I am sympathetic to that issue.”
Colleen Murphy, executive director of the Freedom of Information Commission, said they are supportive of the legislation “and look forward to working with Rep Winkler and all interested parties on this issue. ”