Five Dollars for a Photocopy from Municipal Water Board

10/12/99

Water board decreases charge on copies
After complaints, rate is lowered from $5 per page to 25 cents

By JEB SCHRENK Staff Reporter

Prichard's water board, which had been charging customers up to $5 per page for copies of public documents, decided Monday to decrease the fee to 25 cents after some residents complained the rates were unreasonable.

In some cases customers will not be charged at all, but a $10 charge can be added if employees have to spend more than 30 minutes accessing requested information, officials said.

The Mobile Register in August reported the disparity between the per-copy rate in Prichard - one of Alabama's poorest cities, with a median family income of about $12,000 a year - and the rate charged by other water boards.

Ronnie Williams, attorney for the Water Works and Sewer Board of the City of Prichard, said media interest in the topic sparked a look into the rate.

"I think it's the first real look at the policy," Williams said.

Board Chairman Jack Wims has said the fee was $3, but meeting minutes show that a $5-per-page fee was approved on April 26 and at least one resident had been asked to pay that amount.

The 25-cent fee makes getting information more affordable, said Prichard resident Betty Rogers.

"I think that's a lot better," she said. Ms. Rogers said she has helped organize a petition asking that Gov. Don Siegelman have the attorney general's office open an investigation on water board practices.

She said 1,500 people have signed the petition, and she is waiting to get more signatures before sending the request to the governor.

Under Alabama law, the public is entitled to free copies of public records - if possible. If budgetary constraints prevent that, copies should be supplied at a "nominal fee" to cover costs, the law states.

The water board voted unanimously Monday to accept the following new fees: Residents who want a copy of the rate schedule or documents pertaining to their bill get one copy for free; additional copies are 25 cents; copies of other water board documents are 25 cents a page.

Tom Jennings, spokesman for the Mobile Area Water and Sewer System, said utility rate schedules in Mobile are free to customers and other copies may have a charge of 25 cents per page.

Jennings said additional fees are added on a case-by-case basis if a request takes employees away from their regular duties for an extended period.

Getting copies in Prichard hasn't always been easy.

Curious about how much other water customers are charged, community activist Charles Mason earlier this year went to the Prichard water board's downtown office and asked for a copy of the rate schedule.

He says he was told by a clerk that he would have to put the request in writing and have it approved by the water board. When Mason picked up the rate schedule April 13, he said he was charged $5 - as much as 17 percent of his monthly bill.

The water works and sewer board operates on a $6.1 million annual budget and offers service to about 12,000 households in Prichard and about 900 in Chickasaw.

1999 Mobile Register. Used with permission.