Oak Park Public Library's board of trustees has approved a 2017 budget, but next year they're anticipating a big drop in the roughly $140,000 they take in from fines and fees annually, due to their plan to eliminate overdue fines for books and other materials.
The library currently charges 25 cents a day for overdue items, maxing out at the value of the item itself. Under the new model, patrons would be sent a bill for the item after it is 42 days overdue and be unable to check out new items until they return the book or pay to replace it.
The overdue fines, which make up about two-thirds of the $140,000 in anticipated revenue, would still apply to materials that are brought in from libraries participating in the SWAN Consortium – a network of 78 libraries throughout suburban Chicago that shares materials – and for patrons who are not Oak Park residents. Those using a Chicago Public Library card, for example, would still be required to pay overdue fines if late returning a book checked out in Oak Park.
Library Board President Matt Baron said the change, which wouldn't go into effect until June 1, aims to bring greater equity to low-income patrons who are at greater risk of losing access to library materials because they're unable to pay the fines.
"It's going to do away with one of the biggest points of friction between the staff and the public," he said.
A library board memo says fines are a "regressive method of raising revenue: they impact the most those who can least afford them."
Library Director David Seleb said his goal is to eliminate barriers to the library and that overdue fines are part of an outdated model.
"It's always assumed that library fines are a discouragement to patrons keeping materials that are overdue," Seleb said. "Frankly, that's never been demonstrated to be true."
Algonquin Area Public Library, Addison Public Library, Ela Area Public Library and Vernon Area Public Library District have eliminated overdue fines, and Seleb said patrons have continued to return books at the same rate.
Not exactly, according to representatives of the Algonquin and Vernon libraries.
Diane Strzelecki, an Algonquin Area Public Library spokesperson, said that the percentage of overdue items has doubled since the library system instituted the policy in 2014. Before the library went fine-free, roughly 1 percent of its items were overdue – that's increased to 2 percent, or roughly 4,000 items, she said.
The Algonquin library system "ultimately" gets most materials returned, she said. After items there have gone overdue for three weeks, the library sends a bill for the item, "and that is usually good enough to get them to bring the item back to the library," she said.
Similarly, Vernon Area Public Library eliminated fines a year and a half ago and has experienced an increase in overdue items, but the amount of time the items remain overdue has decreased dramatically. Cynthia Fuerst, Vernon Area Public Library director, said the items that are overdue but coming back sooner, noting, that the average number of days items are overdue has dropped 42 percent on average.
"Under our traditional model, [overdue] items were an average of 19 days late; now, they're being returned 11 days late [on average]," she said.
She said first-time checkouts are up, though, because patrons have "more comfort checking out materials because we're not nickel and diming them."
"No one wants to shake down a busy family or a stressed out student for a pocket full of change," Fuerst said. "It just wasn't the kind of customer experience we wanted to provide."
Oak Park's Seleb said the library fine proposal is not a done deal and that the library board still must adopt the official policy eliminating the fines. So far, the board has just adjusted the budget to anticipate the reduction in revenue.
Seleb noted that although the revenue from late fines would go away under the proposed change, it won't hit the pocketbooks of Oak Park taxpayers. That's because the library is getting closer to paying off about $30 million in bond debt used to build the main library and renovate the two branches in 2003.
He said the decision on overdue fines was independent from the bond debt, which is expected to be completely paid off in 2020. Those bond payments, however, are becoming smaller as the debt is paid off, he said.
The bond-debt bill in 2016 was $2.6 million, but that payment drops to roughly $1 million next year, he said.
"I want to be clear that while this is a topic that informs our decision on eliminating fines, this is not the reason we are eliminating fines; we need to be very clear about that," he said. "The point is that even though the library [could] eliminate fines, that does not mean we are raising taxes because we are not. It does not mean that the library is going to have to raise other revenue."
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