One coastal South Carolina government wanted to charge a newspaper $75,000 for a public records request that other governments filled for free.
The Sun News of Myrtle Beach used a Freedom of Information Act request to ask for all records on payments to settle lawsuits or threats to sue over the past five years.
Horry County told the newspaper it estimated a $75,000 cost to research and produce the records and said it would need an $18,875 deposit before it could even begin to process the request.
The cities of Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach emailed the newspaper the records for free. The city of Conway charged $42.40 because it took a staffer an hour to compile the request and much smaller Surfside Beach charged $21.60, the newspaper reported.
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Horry County did not provide a breakdown of how it came up with the $75,000 estimate. State law allows governments to charge for staff time at the salary rate of the lowest paid employee that could fill the request and charge for copies at a rate similar to a private copy business.
The county could be inflating its cost several ways, including charging for printing records it could transmit electronically, said South Carolina Press Association Executive Director Bill Rogers, who said the law requires governments to answer public records requests as cheaply as possible.
"The public should have access to information at the lowest possible cost, and it's hard to imagine this is the lowest possible cost," Rogers said.
The newspaper filed another public records request for emails about its first request and discovered messages from several department heads estimating how much it would cost to get the records. Their separate estimates added up to less than $10,000. County officials refused to explain the difference.
The newspaper also filed a third public records request to see if the county made large estimates for requests from other people. The county told them that would cost more than $10,000 to fulfill.