OP-ED | Time to Reform the Legal Notices Mandate
In 2013, Connecticut’s hometowns are still forced to pay to post legal notices—such as tax foreclosures, coastal site plans, lists of taxable personal properties, even budgets—in obscure pages of printed newspapers; posting them online doesn’t count.
This antiquated state law has not kept pace as technology has provided broader options and society seeks to receive information in faster, more direct ways. The failure of this mandate to evolve costs towns and cities in excess of $6 million each year in advertisement fees (which are charged at most newspapers’ highest rates). The mandate can cost our poorest cities hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, and burdens small towns as well.
The General Assembly can fix this problem today by passing Senate Bill 1112.
The “legal notices” mandate suppresses local governments’ visibility, protects the status quo, and uses property tax dollars as a life-preserver for financially-strapped newspapers. Municipal officials are sympathetic concerning the revenue loss SB 1112 would mean for newspapers. However, with a state budget proposal that cuts municipal unrestricted aid by $93 million, property taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize print newspapers. The price of this and other unfunded state mandates at the local level is (1) higher property taxes, (2) municipal service cuts, and (3) teacher and municipal employees layoffs.
SB 1112 is a compromise: Towns would be required to publish notice of the availability of a document in local newspapers, along with a summary and clear instructions as to how to get additional information or the complete text of the public document (municipal office where a hard copy can be obtained, a contact name and phone number that could be used to get more information, and the web address where an online version can be found).
To ensure that the public knows where to find the notice, SB 1112 would require newspapers to have a designated section for all public notices to be listed in the publications’ tables of content.
The Internet has become the tool most widely used for the dissemination of information. With the unfortunate, steep decline in print newspaper readership, the Internet is the quickest, most efficient, transparent and cost-effective way to get information out to the greatest number of residents.
The Internet is where people shop, communicate, socialize, pay bills, and share general information. Municipal and state websites have become critical lifelines that link living rooms to town halls and the State Capitol, instantly. Like local cable access stations, the Internet and municipal/state websites have allowed governmental activities to become even more transparent and accessible.
Passage of SB 1112 would not hamper the public’s right to know. Rather, it would enhance public access, while also reducing taxpayer costs to provide information.
It is important to remember:
—The Internet is accessible to everyone. All local libraries are equipped with computers at no cost to the users. Newspapers must be purchased to be read.
—The Internet provides instantaneous and constantly updated information. Newspapers provide a static snapshot in time.
—Internet sites may be accessed from anywhere in the world, at any time. Newspapers may only be purchased in the region they serve.
—Public notices placed on Internet sites can remain there indefinitely, making the information available for a greater amount of time. Notices placed in newspapers are there only for the allotted paid-for time.
—Print newspaper circulation rates are low and declining, reaching only a fraction of the public audience.
The State is already moving toward a paperless system: The General Assembly stopped printing certain important legislative documents several years ago. Further, PA 12-92 requires all proposed state agency regulations to be placed online instead of published in paper form, and there are numerous other proposals this year to stop publishing (yet provide online access to) other state notices and information – all in an effort to save state dollars, without infringing on the public’s access to information.
Now is time to do the same for towns and cities—and their overburdened residential and business property taxpayers.
SB 1112 would still provide newspaper-published information yet save taxpayers millions of dollars each year.
Now is the time for reasonable change. State lawmakers should enact Senate Bill 1112 this year.
Leo Paul, is first selectman of Litchfield and Art Ward is mayor of Bristol.