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St. Paul council set to approve amnesty for overdue book fines

December 9, 2018 GMT

St. Paul residents stand on the cusp of amnesty for library late fees.

On Wednesday, the St. Paul City Council is set to approve the library system’s $20 million budget, which includes more than $215,000 to make up for the amount collected in late fees each year. Beginning Jan. 1, the city also will forgive more than $2.5 million in accumulated late fees for more than 51,000 delinquent cardholders whose rights to borrow have been revoked since 2009.

Nearly one in five library cardholders now have their rights blocked. City leaders want them to come back to the library.

Mayor Melvin Carter earlier proposed a 3.2 percent library budget increase from 2018. If the City Council approves Carter’s plan — as expected — St. Paul will join Washington County and a number of cities outside Minnesota, including Salt Lake City, Nashville and Eau Claire, Wis., in eliminating late fees.

Library and city officials say the late fees don’t work at getting people to return items on time. But they do make the library system inaccessible to many people who live in poorer communities. Because of the longstanding practice of revoking privileges for unpaid fines, library workers said many families have been forced to choose between paying library fines or paying for other necessities.

Library users would still be asked to pay for lost or damaged items. Items that have been gone for a still-to-be-determined amount of time will be considered lost and people will be billed, said Phoebe Larson, a library spokeswoman.

“We do want everything back,” she said.

Officials say that eliminating late fees won’t affect library collections, technology, programs or services. In fact, they say increasing the budget to replace fine revenue, which has been going down steadily for the past 10 years, makes sense. A rise in the use of electronic materials, which do not accrue late fees, and other factors have contributed to the decline.

The library already has gone fine-free on all children’s and teen materials, which are being returned at the same rate as books and other materials that have been subject to fines. In fact, officials say that rather than increasing the rate of returns, fines simply discourage people from using the library.

In 2017, 5,133,819 people visited St. Paul libraries on site or online, borrowing 2,440,606 items. Library officials say they want those numbers to go up and expect once-blocked library patrons will help them do that.

“We are hoping those folks and more come back,” Larson said.

James Walsh • 612-673-7428