Talk about a clean slate.

Fines owed for overdue L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library books will be waived at the start of next year, and patrons no longer will get fined for returning most items late. 

The decision, approved by the library board Thursday, is an effort to invite people back to the downtown building, including about 8,000 patrons whose library cards were blocked.

“This is a game-changer,” said Shelly Collins-Fuerbringer, library youth services manager. “It’s a really big deal.”

Library staff said fines end up cutting off access to the library for those who often need its services most. Cards are blocked once the cardholder owes more than $10 in fines.

“Unfortunately, many of the folks with blocked accounts are children and those with limited means,” said Isa Small, programming and communications services manager. “Consequently, many of the people who could most benefit from library materials are not able to check out.”

While a majority of fines are going away, there are exceptions for popular items or more expensive rentals such as new books, kits and technology. Additionally, patrons will still be responsible for returning items to the library, and accounts will still be blocked if materials are long overdue. 

A first notice will be sent seven days after the book is due, with a second notice following 14 days from the due date. After 28 days, a bill for the book will be sent and the card will be blocked.

“This is letting people know sooner that you need to bring it back,” Collins-Fuerbringer said. “Customers are still held accountable.”

The new rules do not excuse library cardholders from paying replacement fees for lost and unreturned items.

Lifting barriers

When Collins-Fuerbringer went into schools in the spring to promote the library’s summer programs, the kids she met asked a lot of questions. It was during that time that one of the kids told her he couldn’t visit the library anymore.

She asked why, and he responded, “Well because I have too many fines.” 

It was a light bulb moment for her, she said, realizing that probably many more kids associate a fine with not even being able to enter the library.

By getting rid of fines, the library has an opportunity to lift unintentional barriers to children eager to use the library’s services, she said. 

“It’s really exciting that fines are not going to be the reason that kids can’t take advantage of the library,” she said.

Pamela Westby, library director, said most of the fines are more than three years old. She pointed out that children whose cards were blocked in kindergarten might not be able to rent library materials for their entire elementary careers. 

She said children without access to books are at a distinct disadvantage in school, which research shows could lead to other problems in adult life, such as incarceration. 

“If we really want to get at the systemic problems with poverty, we have to go back to younger years and make sure they can read,” Westby said. 

Making up revenue

Revenue from fines is about 1.2 percent of the library’s total budget, and 20 percent of library cards in Eau Claire are blocked because fines exceed $10.

According to the Eau Claire city budget, revenue from fines was budgeted at $87,800 in 2017. The library projected it would get $73,700 from people paying their fines, though Westby said it will be less than that once the year is done.

By wiping away a majority of fees, the proposed fines revenue for 2018 is $7,300, and the library already has plans to make up the loss. 

Savings are being generated from moving the library’s maintenance and capital improvement dollars into a separate city fund. Previously, those projects were funded by the library’s operating budget. 

Additionally, funding from the county increased, which Westby attributed to increases in circulation of library materials.

The library has waived fines in the past for extreme circumstances that prevent a patron from paying fines. Such scenarios might have involved the person being hospitalized, going to prison or being evicted from their home.

In 2016, $4,155 in fines were cleared because of such circumstances, Westby said.

Westby said even with the fines in place, patrons were willing to pay the fines and keep the book beyond its due date. 

“Unless the fines are really large and more on the punitive side, it’s not motivating people to return them earlier,” Westby said.

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