Friday, November 14, 2008

The Cost of Free Goes Higher.

A bit of irony: Exactly one week after I posted the accumulated cost of the system that supports "free" access to court information in Indiana, we have received word from a representative of the Association of Indiana Counties that the Court's proposal to the Indiana State Budget Committee this morning includes a request for a 42% increase in the Court Record Automation Fee. (Pull out your calculators and look at my last post to see how much that adds to the cost of "free".)

Oddly, that's not even the most interesting aspect of the proposal. It sounds like they're proposing eliminating elected clerks. I'll try to obtain a copy of the proposal and post it here along with more thorough analysis when it becomes available. Until then, here's a quote with the highlights:

"Today the Supreme Court announced their budget proposal to the State Budget Committee. The proposal included the appointment of clerks by the state, probation fees absorbed by the state, and a $7-10 fee increase for the JTAC Odyssey system."

Update: I have now obtained a partial copy of the budget proposal. Many pages are missing, so I'll wait until I have a clean copy to post it. Here are a few figures:

On page 12, the proposal requests that the automated record keeping fee "be increased by $3 to $10 per case filed, effective July 1, 2009."

The bottom line on the entire budget is that the Court intends to increase its spending overall from an estimated $136,180,673 in FY '08-'09 to $164,133,297 in FY'09-'10. An increase of roughly 28 million dollars. Since they expect less of this to be funded by "dedicated" funds, this will translate to about $32.7 million more out of State "general" (tax) funds.

Friday, November 7, 2008

TANSTAAFL (There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch!)

I noticed a couple of blog posts yesterday that fit together to paint an interesting picture and raise important questions about public policy.

First, on the blog of the Indiana Courts Judicial Automation and Technology Committee, we learned that October represented a record month for the Odyssey public access site, with "an average of 245 different users every day of the month." The post ends with "Access public records 24/7 free of charge."

"Free" is a slippery word when it comes to government services. Most of us understand that somebody always pays and start to wonder who pays and how much when a government agency says "free".

So it's a happy coincidence that on the same day, over at the The Indiana Law Blog, Marcia Oddi posted an overview of court fees that was presented to the Commission on Courts. The charts show a complete breakdown of all fees. The 3-page overview for the Commission presents detailed information on several recently added fees, but skips over the (you guessed it) "Automated Record Keeping Fee" of $7, which funds the JTAC projects, Odyssey being the largest. We'll correct that oversight here.

The important fact I learned from this report is how often the fee is collected. For criminal cases, fees aren't assessed if you are not found guilty, and the occasional scofflaw never gets around to paying. Based on the numbers given to the commission, fees are collected on about 56% of all cases. I won't drag you through all of the math. (Click here if you want details.) The bottom line is that since this fee was initiated in 2001, JTAC has collected 48.2 million dollars from the people who file court cases or pay fines in Indiana. Maybe "free" isn't quite the right word. I'd suggest: "Paid for by the citizens of Indiana." The companies who are the primary consumers of this information should know who to thank for this valuable gift.

This concern about the public subsidizing a relatively small number businesses drove Doxpop to decide on a different business model: If you are one of the many for-profit businesses that use court information, we will provide that service for a reasonable fee. If you are a court, we charge you nothing. If you are not a court, but are another government agency or non-profit, we will cut our fees in half, thus supplying the service below our cost. Most importantly, if you don't need our service, you don't pay a dime.

It's not a free lunch, but we believe it is fair, and perhaps more important to the public, honest in its transparency.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Wayne Reload Complete.

We're Done!

Over the Halloween weekend, fueled late at night by sweets filched from the bags of unsuspecting little goblins, our operations team completed the reload of Wayne County's court data.

This morning, the regular data load from Wayne County was restored and everything is now back normal.

Those of you with alerts and schedule notifications set for Wayne County may have received a couple of batches of emails. Some went out very early this morning (before 8AM.) These were "extras" caused be the resynchronization and may be safely ignored. The second batch went out after 8AM. These are new alerts and notifications that stacked up in the queue while we were resynchronizing. Pay attention to these. They are the events that occurred in the last week that you asked us to notify you about.

If you have any questions about any of this, please give the support folks a call. They'll answer your question or transfer you to me.

Thanks again for bearing with us while we did this important work.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Wayne County Resynch Nearly Done

Whew! Almost there. This weekend we completed the resynchronization of Wayne County to take care of a gap created earlier in the month when they had some problems with the server at the courthouse. This turned out to be a time consuming process as we reloaded 17 years worth of court case information for Wayne County.

We will be turning the data feed back on early Monday morning (11/3) to complete the process and return Wayne County to it's normal status.

Those of you who have calendar notification turned on or a number of alerts set for Wayne County cases may receive a slew of email in the morning as we catch up on the week that it took to complete this process. (What? You don't use calendar notification or alerts? Click here and here to learn about what you've been missing!)

Thanks for your patience while we worked through this reload.