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Every so often, someone in the West Virginia Legislature or elsewhere gets the idea that state and local government should stop running paid public notices, also known as legal advertising, in newspapers. It’s an expense that can be done away with in the internet age with no harm done to the public’s ability to know what’s going on in their area, right?

Not really.

That idea has come up again this year in the West Virginia Legislature with two bills that would limit the amount of public notice that is published in print.

House Bill 2715, introduced by Delegate Geoff Foster, R-Putnam, would order the state Auditor’s Office to establish a website centralizing all postings of legal advertisements required by law. It allows state and local governments to publish Class II and Class III legal notices once in a local newspaper instead of the current requirement of two or three weeks if the notice is also placed on the State Central Legal Advertising Website for the time period otherwise required by law.

Thus, it wouldn’t eliminate the requirement for paid public notices in local newspapers, but it would reduce their frequency.

Foster’s bill does not apply to Class I paid notices, which are published only once.

The bill was referred to the House Judiciary Committee.

Then there’s Senate Bill 318, introduced by Sen. Robert Karnes, R-Randolph. It would eliminate the requirement that the state treasurer publish the full list of the unclaimed property registry and instead require that the information be included in a publicly available online database. The treasurer would need to provide published notice that the database is available. That notice would give directions on how to access the database.

SB 318 has been referred to the Senate Finance Committee.

These seem like reasonable proposals on the surface, but when you dig deeper, the two bills share common flaws. They appear to work for people in the Capitol, at the county courthouse or city hall, but do internet-based public notices work for the average resident?

Placing public notices on a website works if the notices are easy to find and are available for a long period of time.

It also works if everyone has access to affordable, reliable high-speed internet service. And there’s the rub; many parts of West Virginia and other states don’t have that. Add to that the problem of internet outages. They happen. Some people in West Virginia have been without internet service in their homes since the ice storms of last month, when phone and cable lines went down.

There’s also the fact that online notices can be buried in a user-unfriendly website. That would be a great place to hide important information.

Sure, there is some self-interest when newspapers object to limiting or eliminating some advertising. Newspapers make money on paid notices. Some smaller newspapers could face closure if that income dried up or was reduced greatly — a development that could cost the state jobs. Paid public notices are a reliable source of income in a time when other ad revenues are diminishing.

But counties make money on paid public notices, too.

At a meeting of the House of Delegates Judiciary Committee meeting last year, Don Smith, executive director of the West Virginia Press Association, said most counties more than make up the costs of paid notices with publication fees they assess to the subjects of those notices.

For delinquent property tax notices, for instance, counties assess a $25 publication fee at the time the property owner pays the back taxes or when the property is sold at public auction.

For example, Boone County reported that it paid $4,923 for paid notices during the 2018-19 budget year, but it collected $69,725 in publication fees. That works out to more than $14 received for every dollar spent.

What private enterprise, county government or school board would turn down a return on investment of 14-to-1?

To quote from the West Virginia Press Association’s statement on paid public notices, “West Virginia newspapers are part of their communities. They represent hundreds of jobs across all 55 counties. A local newspaper is an invaluable partner for businesses and industries and the primary source of news for residents. Legal advertising in newspapers effectively delivers the notice to the public.

“Legal advertisements for public notices should appear in local newspapers where West Virginians look for news.”

No matter how newspapers and legislators go back and forth about legal ads in newspapers, the fact is that paid public notices work for the people. It’s a filter-free way to inform the public about delinquent taxes, plans to build roads, sample ballots and many other important items of public interest.

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