Time to debunk myth that public notices are a financial burden

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Key Points: Steve Key, executive director and general counsel, Hoosier State Press Association

It’s time to debunk the myth of the financial burden advertising public notices places on local government units.

The cost is the No. 1 cited reason given by representatives of local government associations while testifying for the elimination of the publication requirement for a specific public notice or all public notices.

They don’t say the interests of legal due process or government transparency will be better served through the elimination. They can’t because they know the chances average Hoosiers will ever see the notices on their government websites are slim and none.

So it comes down to cost as their argument.

Reviewing information provided to me by two Indiana newspapers – one a major daily and the other a weekly in a mid-size county – pokes holes in the cost argument.

For the East-central Indiana weekly, the average cost per public notice for local government units in 2019 was $95.57. For the northern Indiana daily, that average was $85.78.

The cost is the No. 1 cited reason given by representatives of local government associations while testifying for the elimination of the publication requirement for a specific public notice or all public notices.

I was surprised to see that the average for the weekly newspaper was larger, but looking at the data, it comes down to fewer public notices published because there are fewer government units that publish their notices in the weekly newspaper, so the weight of notices placed by townships increases the average. Six of the 10 townships only published one notice during the year – their annual financial report, which ranged in cost from $152 to $307. The financial report is a larger than normal sized public notice, particularly for townships because they have to add a list of expenditures that no other local government unit is required to publish.

Ironically, that average cost will decrease if S.B. 409, authored by Sen. Rick Niemeyer is approved during this legislative session. His legislation would eliminate the list of expenditures from the published yearly report for townships.

The daily published 1,927 public notices for local government units, compared to 289 for the weekly. That would be expected in an urban county with more local government units. An interesting note was that the average cost per notice dropped down to $73.69 if you took the County Treasurer out of the picture. The average cost for the three notices published by the treasurer was $7,834 because of the size of the tax sale notice. The daily’s county has an unusual number of properties each year subject to the tax sale.

For the weekly paper, the county auditor spent the most taxpayer dollars for public notices – $7,608, but it also published the most public notices (36 with an average cost of $211 for them). The auditor is required to publish the chart every year that shows the different tax rates in effect across the county, which would push that average cost up.

Except for the Auditor, the most any government unit paid to publish public notices was $2,381. Hardly an amount that would hamper any government unit’s ability to serve their community. (Full disclosure: the cost for public notices for county units in both counties would be higher because most of notices would be published in two newspapers in a county. Although that wouldn’t be the case in a third of the counties because they only have one newspaper.”

As the Hoosier State Press Association continues to fight legislation that would move publication of public notices from newspapers to posting on government websites, beyond all the arguments for government transparency and how the public will never see the notices on government websites, publishers might want to take a look at the cost to local government to place public notices in their newspaper(s).

I think one will find the cost argument against publication to be a weak point for Hoosiers who value government transparency. Don’t forget that 63% of adult Hoosiers said in an American Opinion Research survey in 2017 that notices should be published in their local newspapers even when told it could cost the government unit several thousand dollars.

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