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California

San Diego may eliminate library fines to avoid cutting off the poor

The San Diego Central Library downtown.
(San Diego Union Tribune/file photo)
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San Diego may join a national trend of eliminating library fines to avoid cutting off the poor from a vital service and to boost recovery of overdue items.

While fines encourage many library users to return items on time, city officials say they actually do more harm than good by discouraging some patrons, especially those with low incomes, from continuing to use the library.

The fines often escalate into frozen library accounts for which borrowing privileges are suspended, leaving some customers with no library access for many years.

More than 22% of San Diego library card holders have frozen accounts — 174,000 out of 762,000, officials said. That percentage rises significantly higher in some of the city’s low-income neighborhoods.

Customers with frozen accounts who can’t afford the fines they owe also are less likely to return overdue books, DVDs and other items, officials said. The city’s 36-branch system has 300,000 overdue items valued at more than $4 million.

Fines also cost the city’s library system more than the revenue they generate. The city receives an average of $763,000 per year in fines but spends an estimated $1 million in staff time collecting fines and updating accounts.

So San Diego’s library director, Misty Jones, is proposing the city eliminate fines and adopt some related policies that aim to boost return rates of overdue items.

“Fines are in conflict with the mission and vision of the library,” Jones told a City Council committee last week. “Our goal is to provide access to all San Diegans, and fines create an unnecessary barrier to access.”

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Her proposal wouldn’t eliminate fines people accrued before the policy change, but Councilman Chris Cate of Mira Mesa said last week that he’d like to see the city explore an amnesty or forgiveness program.

Councilwoman Georgette Gomez of City Heights endorsed that idea, adding that if fines are only partially forgiven, she’d like to see customers with lower incomes get a bigger break.

Cate said he also wants an incentive program under which businesses would offer prizes or gifts to people who return their library items on time.

“If you return your library book on time five times in a row or 10 times in a row, you get a free breakfast at McDonald’s — or something like that,” he said.

Cate said such a program could replace the avoidance of fines, the incentive that now prompts most patrons to return library materials on time.

Jones plans to present her proposal to the City Council in April as part of the city’s annual review of all fees, fines and penalties. Mayor Kevin Faulconer already has endorsed the new approach.

“Libraries are hubs for inspiration, discovery and opportunity that can change lives,” Faulconer said in a statement. “This new model encourages patrons to renew, return or replace materials they borrow and allow continued access to library services for San Diegans who need them the most.”

If Jones’ plan is approved, San Diego would be following the lead of Nashville, Salt Lake City and Columbus, Ohio — cities that have eliminated library fines during the last two years. The Los Angeles County library system eliminated fines for customers under 21 in December.

Under Jones’ proposal, all checked-out items would be automatically renewed the maximum five times for a total check-out period of 105 days. Customers who fail to return an item by that time would have their account frozen, but face no fines.

If the item isn’t returned within an additional 30 days, customers would receive a bill for the value of the item. At 60 days, their debt would be turned over to the city treasurer.

Existing policies freeze accounts when $10 in fines have accrued, customers are billed for items when they reach 42 days overdue and debts are immediately turned over to the treasurer when they reach $50.

Garrick writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

david.garrick@sduniontribune.com

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