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What to Know About Charging Fees for FOIA Requests

The SC Freedom of Information Act requires public bodies to develop and post online a schedule of fees for the actions that go into providing a response to a request for information — things like searching, retrieving, redacting and copying. When creating such a schedule, there are some restrictions and considerations that cities and towns should apply.

Waiver of fees

Although cities and towns may charge for FOIA requests, they do not have to do so. The law in SC Code Section 30-4-30 states that public bodies can provide documents either for no charge or a reduced charge when the body determines that this “is in the public interest” and is “primarily  benefitting the general public.” Providing information to the news media to keep residents informed of their government’s operation can be an example of this.

It’s important to note that the legislative intent of the FOIA fee schedule was to create uniformity and transparency in how fees are applied. Local governments should aim for consistency about when and how they waive fees. Fees charged should help the municipality recover meaningful costs in fulfilling requests — they should not be used in an attempt to discourage FOIA requests altogether.

Hourly charges

FOIA allows public bodies to charge for time spent searching, retrieving and appropriately redacting requested documents, but does not allow for charges for time spent determining whether a requested document is subject to disclosure. The charge cannot exceed the hourly wage of the lowest-paid employee who has the skills needed to fulfill the request. 

Notably, the employee in question might differ depending on the type of request, so cities and towns do not have to name a specific hourly rate in the policy. A particular request might require database searching to fulfill, and the IT person necessary to perform the tasks may have a higher hourly rate than the lowest-paid employee who could fulfill other types of requests. 

Copying charges

FOIA states that copying charges cannot be greater than the “prevailing commercial rate” for creating copies. It also states that the charges cannot be applied to records transferred to the requestor electronically — for example, by email.

A posted fee schedule might list the cost of black-and-white copies or color copies by page, or might list the cost of a thumb drive or other physical device used to upload the information.

Charging a deposit

Public bodies can require a deposit to be paid for furnishing the records, but do not have to do so. The deposit can be no greater than 25% “of the total reasonably anticipated cost.”

Proactive steps

When addressing FOIA-related issues, municipal officials should always remember that they can be proactive and post commonly sought after public information on the city’s website — meeting agendas and minutes, ordinances, planning documents and financial reports, among others. This can reduce staff time fulfilling requests for the information, can reduce the need to calculate fees in some cases, and can help bolster public trust as well.

Learn more in the SC Press Association’s Public Official’s Guide to Compliance with the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.