St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter wants to eliminate library late fines, forgive $2.5M in debt

Fines disproportionately impact lower-income users, he says.
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Library books

In a move to improve access for families to St. Paul's public library system, Mayor Melvin Carter is proposing to eliminate late fines.

Late fines cannot be relied upon as a sustainable source of revenue, the mayor said, and they are shown to disproportionately impact low-income households.

The cost and shame of racking up fines is discouraging families from using the library system, Carter adds, and he believes removing the punishment will improve access to reading materials for St. Paul children.

Eliminating late fines form part of a $215,000 investment Carter has proposed for the city's library system on Wednesday morning.

And part of his proposal could see the city forgive $2.5 million in late fee debt, unblocking some 51,000 library accounts.

"Moving away from late fines will make our libraries more accessible and welcoming for all of our residents," said Mayor Carter.

"I look forward to welcoming back all of our library users who have been blocked because they couldn’t afford to pay a fine."

St. Paul carried out a study that found that 19 percent of its library cardholders have had their accounts blocked because they have too many fines to pay.

The average debt is $33, it says, with St. Paul issuing around $175,000-worth of overdue fines in 2017.

Library late fines

This map shows that low income neighborhoods typically have the mist library debt.

Despite this loss of revenue, the city says that the amount of time its frontline staff spends on fine-related transactions amounts amounts to about $250,000-worth of staff time that could be freed up for other services.

Under the new system, cardholders will still receive reminders when a due date approaches and passes, and could still see their account blocked if they don't return and item.

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They will still have to pay fees for lost and damaged books.

The city cited examples from other places in the country, including Eau Claire and Salt Lake City, that removed late fines and found that users still returned the books they'd borrowed.

St. Paul Library Director Catherine Penkert said: "Late fines are, in many ways, opposite to our values as a public library system. We want our community to associate libraries with friendly staff, welcoming service, and useful information – not with guilt and shame over late fines."

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