SC’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) says that a public body may establish and collect reasonable fees not to exceed the actual cost of the search, retrieval, and redaction of records.” The FOIA law provides additional guidelines that are clearly designed to keep the cost of a FOIA request as low as possible.
Many government agencies comply with SC’s FOIA laws, providing public information when it is requested and charging minimal fees as the law requires. Other agencies refuse to honor FOIA requests, citing exemptions that don’t apply to the information requested or demanding excessive fees in an obvious attempt to discourage people from filing FOIA requests…
Does Horry County comply with SC’s FOIA laws? What should FOIA requests cost, how much does a FOIA request cost in Horry County, and how is Horry County handling them?
How Much Should a FOIA Request Cost in Horry County?
SC Code Section 30-4-30 provides clear rules for how much a municipality or government agency can charge for a FOIA request.
As a starting point, the County is authorized to charge a reasonable fee to respond to a FOIA request:
The public body may establish and collect reasonable fees not to exceed the actual cost of the search, retrieval, and redaction of records.
So, what is a reasonable fee?
What is a “Reasonable Fee” for a FOIA Request in SC?
The legislature is clear about their intention in limiting the fees charged for FOIA requests in SC:
The records must be furnished at the lowest possible cost to the person requesting the records.
FOIA fees cannot exceed the hourly salary of the lowest paid employee who could have replied to the FOIA request:
The fee for the search, retrieval, or redaction of records shall not exceed the prorated hourly salary of the lowest paid employee who, in the reasonable discretion of the custodian of the records, has the necessary skill and training to perform the request.
If, like most FOIA requests, you are asking for the production of documents that are either contained on their computer or in a filing cabinet, they can’t charge you $100 an hour to locate a file on their computer, open an email, address it to you, attach the file, and click send.
For example, if you make a FOIA request to the Horry County Solicitor’s Office, they cannot charge you an hourly rate equal to the salary of the circuit solicitor. Or an assistant solicitor, unless there is some reason it requires an attorney to locate and send the documents…
The pro-rated salary of the lowest paid employee who could have completed the request is the most that you can be charged – for example, if there is a temp in the office performing data entry tasks, their hourly rate is most likely the maximum you can legally be charged.
Can They Charge for Copies?
If they have to make copies, they can charge the commercial rate for making copies. If they do charge for copies, they must charge everyone the same amount for copies, and it must be a uniform rate:
Fees charged by a public body must be uniform for copies of the same record or document and may not exceed the prevailing commercial rate for the producing of copies. Copy charges may not apply to records that are transmitted in an electronic format.
But, do they have to make copies?
Most FOIA requests for documents are already going to be in electronic format (on their computer), they can email those documents to you, and they cannot charge you for copies when they reply by email…
If the documents are not in an electronic format and you want them in an electronic format, they can charge you for the time required to scan the documents. How long does it take to scan a document? Pro-rate the hourly salary for the lowest paid employee, and that’s the most they can legally charge for scanning the docs under SC’s FOIA law.
Do They Have to Charge for FOIA Requests?
No. Government agencies in SC have the option of charging you a reasonable fee for a FOIA request, but they can also choose not to charge for FOIA requests:
Documents may be furnished when appropriate without charge or at a reduced charge where the agency determines that waiver or reduction of the fee is in the public interest because furnishing the information can be considered as primarily benefiting the general public.
There are two reasons why government agencies charge fees for FOIA requests:
- To compensate the government for the time its employees spend replying to FOIA requests (sounds reasonable); or
- To discourage people from making FOIA requests (the government is violating the law).
Some government officials refuse to honor FOIA requests or try to discourage FOIA requests by charging fees that the average citizen cannot afford.
Maybe they are incapable of understanding why secrecy in government is bad. Maybe they resent people who demand information from them – it’s annoying, it may be embarrassing, it may expose political unpopular or even criminal actions, and they don’t like people getting into their business.
That’s why SC’s FOIA laws not only direct government agencies to charge the lowest fees possible, they also authorize citizens to sue for FOIA violations and force the government to pay their attorney fees…
Can They Charge for Reviewing a FOIA Request?
The agency can only charge you a reasonable fee for a producing the response to your FOIA request – they cannot charge for looking at the documents and deciding whether they are subject to FOIA:
Fees may not be charged for examination and review to determine if the documents are subject to disclosure.
What is Horry County’s FOIA Request Fee Schedule?
SC’s FOIA laws also require public bodies to post a fee schedule online. Horry County’s Public Information Office provides the following information on their website:
Fees: Please anticipate the following fees for the records requested (other fees may apply):
- $0.15 per page (8.5″ x 11″/single sided/black and white).
- $25 per hour for staff time.
- $10 per file for E911 audio (CD or MP3)-NOTE: Audio is kept for a period not exceeding six (6) months.
- $15 per file for video DVDs.
Sounds reasonable. Even though I am sure the lowest paid Horry County employee who would be capable of responding to requests for documents, audio, or video is not making $25 per hour, there’s no way that could add up to something ridiculous like a bill for $75,000.
How Much Does a FOIA Request Cost in Horry County?
So, how does Horry County handle FOIA requests?
Their fee schedule is pretty clear on their website, although you may be concerned by the hourly rate that probably does not comply with the FOIA law and the ominous, parenthetical “other fees may apply.”
Law Student Sues Horry County for FOIA Violations
In recent news, a Cornell Law Student filed a lawsuit alleging FOIA violations by Horry County after they demanded $2125 for case records that the Clerk of Court initially told her could be emailed without charge.
Horry County Denies FOIA Requests by Charging Unreasonable Fees
Think $2125 is bad?
Horry County also recently attempted to charge $75,500 for a FOIA request by the Sun News requesting payments made to settle lawsuits during the past five years – a request that was honored by other local governments for free or for less than $50.
Journalist Sues Horry County for FOIA Violations
Horry County also initially refused to respond to a request for information on how much money the county spent to defend a lawsuit filed by the Horry County Treasurer, who was suing to force the county to provide funds for an administrative assistant.
When the county did respond, they said they denied the request because the requestor asked for the total amounts and not the actual bills. Of course, the bills are subject to FOIA, they said. We just aren’t required to look at the bills and tell you the amounts that are contained in them…
What were they hiding? It turns out the county spent $51,761.73 defending the lawsuit (it was over $80,000, but insurance reimbursed more than $30,000 of it) so they would not have to pay $40,000 to hire an administrative assistant…
Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Requests in Horry County, SC
If you need help filing a FOIA request for information, or if a government agency is refusing to turn over records and you are ready to file a FOIA lawsuit, the FOIA attorneys at Coastal Law can help.
Contact us for a free case evaluation by calling now at (843) 488-5000 or by filling out our online form.