City Hall's Dime Debts

When it comes to Houston follies, full fare is only fair

With a $2.2 billion budget, the city of Houston doesn't stop on a dime.
But the Houston Press halted for a quick double take when that municipal bill arrived in the mail recently.

Due and payable in U.S. currency to the city of Houston was ten cents.
There was no quibbling -- no nickel-and-diming -- about this debt to the city treasury. In research last month on a story about a Houston police officer's whistle-blower lawsuit filed against the city, the Press put in a standard open records request to the police department.

As usual, the police public-information office had the requested statistics ready in about five days, well ahead of the two-week deadline required by state law.

The department had been asked to just fax the single page of material, but it arrived instead via regular mail in a City of Houston envelope and on city stationery. Also enclosed was the bill advising the Press to pay up the ten cents to cover the city's cost of reproducing the statistics.

All that was fine. The Press has no intention of short-changing the city -- penny-ante politicians are far more adept at that. And the dime-a-page charge, mandated by state law, is reasonable, especially when there is only one page's worth of information involved.

But the baffling part was the most basic of math. In addition to the price of the envelope and stationery, it cost the city 33 cents to mail the bill. So even if the city collects the dime, it spent at least 23 cents to notify the Press. Under ideal circumstances, that works out to a 230 percent loss leader.

Although police had no figures on how often the department spends more to collect a bill than the bill itself is worth, it has been enough of a problem that there have been periodic discussions about how to solve it. Robert Hurst, HPD public-information office director, admitted that it's kind of embarrassing to ding customers for only a dime but said information seekers should not take it personally.

"I can sympathize with people who don't understand it, but it's a part of our record-keeping system," said Hurst. "I wish there was an easier way to do it. But it's just business."

Or bad business, some might say.
"If you apply basic business principles, and you're spending 33 cents to get back ten cents, that should be an automatic tip-off that it's not good business," complained City Councilman Chris Bell. He said he campaigned on applying common sense to city government -- "I'd say that's showing a lack of it."

At the police department, Hurst said he would look further into the situation and either call back or have someone from the business office call. No one did. The city's chief financial watchdog, Controller Sylvia Garcia, was not around to express angst. Her aide referred inquiries to assistant city attorney Lan Nguyen.

Nguyen initially misunderstood the phone inquiry, thinking that the Press wanted to complain of overcharging. She explained that city departments are actually supposed to include the cost of the postage when billing for open records requests.

"What we are doing is making sure that we don't make a donation of taxpayer money [by waiving the cost of mailing for a response]," said Nguyen. "So the postage that it costs to mail the document should be reimbursed by whoever is requesting the information. We receive thousands of information requests. If we waived the postage, over the year it could really add up." Told that this was exactly the point of the inquiry, Nguyen was confused and surprised.

"We don't get many people complaining about not being charged enough," she said. "But sometimes, just to avoid the hassle, a department may take it upon themselves to waive the postage fee. Some people just feel silly asking for [an extra] 33 cents."

But she said that, according to policy, the postage should be paid as well by those researching or investigating city records.

Nguyen also promised to look into the matter. It appears that the price of probes may have just gone up.

 
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