Public notices are printed in newspapers and posted on newspaper websites to let you know what government agencies are planning to do. They include meeting notices from school districts, notices about tax increases, school closings, gas drilling activity and more. Some school districts and local governments want to take public notices out of newspapers, saying that they will save money and reach more people by putting the notices on government websites only. Neither of these claims is true.
It will cost government significantly more money to take over the public-notice process, including millions of dollars in technology and personnel costs each year. Government agencies can’t keep up with their current websites, due to costs associated with maintaining them. There are reports that several open government websites may be shut down, due to a lack of funding. The Pennsylvania Department of State recently explained that, due to state budget cutbacks, fewer campaign-finance reports were being posted on the department’s website. Its website reminded the public that paper copies of the reports were available at its office in Harrisburg. Public notices can’t work this way, and the 4,000 plus state and local agencies would have to spend a lot of money — that Pennsylvania doesn’t have — to develop, implement and maintain secure, searchable, archivable websites for public notices.
Newspapers have been providing this service for more than a hundred years. Today, newspapers print public notices, put them on their websites and upload them to a statewide, searchable database, www.mypublicnotices.com, at no additional charge to government or taxpayers. In other words, an online, searchable system is already in place.
The proposals would also allow government to control the entire public-notice process, including the specifics of where and how a particular notice is posted. Notices could be spread among more than 4,000 local government websites, making it difficult for an interested citizen or business owner to know where to find them.
A recent article in the Press-Enterprise (Bloomsburg) provides an example of why Internet-only solutions do not work for government, businesses or taxpayers. Last year, Berwick School District received a waiver from the state Department of Education allowing it to advertise bids on the district website alone. Prior to receiving the waiver, the district spent about $3,000-$7,000 a year on public-notice advertising. Since switching to online-only bidding, the district reported that the number of bidders has plunged. A recent bid advertisement for a new track brought seven out-of-state bidders, at a cost of $1.4 million, along with complaints from a local contractor that there was no local notice of the bid. School officials defended the project costs, but expressed concern that some other recent bids seemed high. They had difficulty gauging the value of those bids, though, because there were so few bidders.
Yes, the newspaper industry is changing, along with every other industry affected by technology and our changing world. Pennsylvania’s newspapers, though, are a vital part of the communities that they serve. They remain the most-read, most reliable way for members of a community to know what government is planning — whether it’s a tax increase, a school closing, or a property reassessment — before it happens. Public notices still belong in newspapers.
Teri Henning is president of the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association.