The Fairfax County Police Department is about to bring its public records request system a little closer to the 21st century.
Starting early next year, the many people who request Fairfax County police records every year through the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) will be able to pay the attached fees online, the county’s FOIA office confirmed to FFXnow.
Currently, the FCPD and nearly all other county departments and agencies require a physical check sent by snail mail for FOIA fees, which cover the costs of labor, copying, and other expenses incurred in the process of obtaining and delivering requested records.
With the new system, records requesters will fill out an online form with their contact information and details about their FOIA request before submitting an electronic check through a secure checkout screen.
“This new process is still being finalized, but we are confident that certain high-volume FOIA agencies (like the FCPD) will be able to collect FOIA fees electronically in early 2022,” Amanda Kastl, the Fairfax County Office of Public Affairs’ countywide FOIA officer, said by email.
The county introduced the online fee portal in August 2020 for the countywide FOIA office, which handles complex requests and ones that involve multiple departments. The office also oversees the overall FOIA process, including standardizing fee collection and processing.
Kastl says her office partnered with the Fairfax County Department of Finance to develop, test, and implement the new system after seeing an increased desire for the ability to pay fees electronically from those requesting records.
The COVID-19 pandemic also played a role, since FOIA staffers were working remotely, which made it harder to process checks.
According to Kastl, the online portal was intended to make the FOIA process simpler and more efficient for both the community and staff, and so far, it has paid off.
“We have received positive feedback from requesters on the convenience and efficiency of submitting payments electronically,” she said.
While online payments are now accepted for everything from grocery shopping to federal taxes, Fairfax County appears to among the vanguard in Northern Virginia when it comes letting people pay FOIA fees electronically.
The only other jurisdiction with an online option is the City of Falls Church, which allows requesters to pay fees through an e-check and credit card payment portal under the “general billing” category.
Arlington County instructs requesters to pay via check, and FFXnow’s sister site ALXnow says that’s also the case for the City of Alexandria. Loudoun County has an online portal for submitting and tracking requests, but it’s unclear whether the system can also be used to pay fees.
The Prince William County Attorney’s Office says it does not have an online system. FOIA payments are normally made by check to the specific department that’s the subject of the document request.
The Town of Vienna does not have any electronic payment options and isn’t planning on implementing one anytime soon, since the number of FOIA requests it receives is “very low,” according to Vienna Police Department public information officer Juan Vasquez.
For now, Fairfax County is only planning to expand its online payment system to the police department, which consistently receives the most public record requests of any county agency.
According to the county’s annual FOIA report for fiscal year 2021, which ran from July 1, 2020 to June 30 of this year, the FCPD received 5,716 requests — more than twice as many as any other agency. It also assessed $40,926 in fees, which is about as much money as the next nine top agencies combined.
Police reports tend to be among the most requested documents, along with complaint records, salary information, and emails and text messages, according to reports from fiscal years 2019 and 2020.
Notably, the amount of FOIA fees collected by the county has declined from $109,710 in FY 2019 to $94,253 in FY 2020 and $86,758 in FY 2021, even though the number of records requested has increased over that same time period.
Kastl notes that one records request with over $15,000 in fees from FY 2019 contributed to the discrepancy, but she says agencies have also become more willing to grant fee waivers to people experiencing hardships under the county’s One Fairfax policy, which directs the government to consider racial and social equity issues in its decision-making.
In addition, county staff have been providing more FOIA responses by email during the pandemic instead of in person or by mail, reducing the amount of processing time for staff and assessed fees, according to Kastl.
“The pandemic taught us the importance of improving efficiency through utilization of innovative IT solutions — from a cloud-based countywide FOIA request tracking application to search-friendly digitization of more and more public records,” Kastl said.
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