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Pennsylvania County Defends Fees for Online Record Searches

During their meeting on Wednesday, Lackawanna County, Pa., officials defended new fees that have recently been imposed for online access to some public records that were previously available for free.

by Jim Lockwood, The Times-Tribune / November 19, 2020
Shutterstock/Alexander Supertramp

(TNS) — Lackawanna County officials defended new fees recently imposed for online access to some public records.

During their meeting Wednesday, the commissioners noted having received written comments from  John Moran , no address listed, expressing concern about, and opposition to, new fees for online access to public records of some row offices, including judicial records, wills and marriage licenses.

Such records used to be available for searching online through the county website, free of charge, but fees began Nov. 11. Now, users must create accounts for access and pay a one-time $25 user initiation fee; 50 cents per minute of online searching; and a $1 minimum monthly invoice fee.

Moran, who extensively searched the records for genealogy, often would spend more than an hour at a time searching, but now can't afford to do so because an hour of searching would cost $30, which he views as exorbitant. His concerns included that historical societies, libraries and newspapers also are impacted by the new fees, the databases were created with taxpayer funds, and a vendor running the system will profit from the fees.

While the county provides a few free public access terminals at the county government center in Scranton, access to the building is restricted because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

County Solicitor  Frank Ruggiero  said the fees are needed to offset costs of processing and scanning the voluminous flow of incoming records and maintaining the databases. Many other counties charge fees for online access to records, some as high as $1.10 per minute, and Lackawanna negotiated a lower per-minute fee, he said.

"So, it's a common practice?" Commissioner Chairman  Jerry Notarianni  asked about charging fees for online access to records.

Ruggiero said yes.

"It is a common practice (to charge fees) and for those counties that have not done it yet, it's just a matter of time until they get on board because that is the wave of the future and with technology," Ruggiero said.

Officials are also discussing establishing protocols within the county government center for public access to free-search terminals, he said.

On Nov. 4, the commissioners voted 3-0 to approve a contract with vendor INFOCON Corporation of Ebensburg to start charging the fees. The county receives 15 cents from each 50 cents generated per minute of searching.

Also Wednesday, the commissioners advanced a 2021 budget that does not increase taxes. They will hold second and final reading of the $138.2 million budget on Dec. 1.

The budget maintains the 63.92-mill total tax rate set when the commissioners reopened the 2020 budget in January. At that time, the board split on approving an 11.3% property tax increase for 2020 to generate $9 million in additional revenue this year. A mill is a $1 tax on every $1,000 of assessed property value.

During the reopening of budget in January, Commissioner  Jerry Notarianni  and Commissioner  Chris Chermak  approved the tax hike — the first since 2013 — while Debi Commissioner Domenick voted against the increase.

(c)2020 The Times-Tribune (Scranton, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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