Round bookshelf in public library

"All late fees will be erased from county library cardholders’ accounts."

Patrons at three West Valley libraries will no longer have to pay a fine if they forget to return a book on time.

The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to eliminate overdue fines for items such as books, magazines and DVDs at its public libraries. The county is the first to do so in Arizona.

“I’m supportive of this because we should be encouraging people to read, especially as we go into the summer right now,” Chairman Bill Gates said at the meeting. “It’s an innovative approach. After this passes, there should be no excuse not to be reading in Maricopa County.”

The revised fine schedule is in effect in the library district’s 18 locations, including Goodyear and Litchfield Park branch libraries and White Tank Library and Nature Center.

Tolleson Public Library as well as Avondale Public Library’s Civic Center and Sam Garcia Western Avenue locations and the Buckeye Public Library System’s Coyote and Downtown branches operate outside the district and are therefore excluded.

All late fees will be erased from county library cardholders’ accounts.

“What we did as the leadership is recognized overdue fines were blocking the accounts and usage of people, primary disadvantaged people who more likely got their cards blocked,” said Jeremy Reeder, deputy director with the Maricopa County Library District. “We were punishing people who were needing it the most.”

To back up that statement, he pointed to the library in Guadalupe, where 67% of the town’s third-graders are not proficient in reading and 69% of the population is 200% below the poverty level. About 15% of the whole area is blocked by overdue fines, Reeder said.

Library officials found overdue fines disproportionately affected juvenile cardholders — 18% of active patrons hold juvenile cards and 28% of blocked users hold juvenile cards.  

The thinking is if overdue fines are eliminated, people can use library material and services without the fear of incurring fines they can’t afford to pay.

Reeder said late fees make up less than 1% of the district’s total revenue intake. The district’s budget this fiscal year is approximately $30 million.

“In 2018, we collected around $300,000 in overdue fines,” Reeder said.

He added the district has been seeing overdue fine revenue dropping each year anyway due to more people checking out digital material, which expires and therefore doesn’t accrue overdue fines.

Circulation numbers for fiscal year 2017-18 logged 6.7 million in print material checked out compared with 1.8 million for electronic resources, according to Reeder.

The district’s fiscal year 2020 budget will make up the revenue loss through other funding sources, according to county officials.

Before the fines’ elimination, 5% of the district’s 136,666 active library cardholders were blocked because of overdue fines. And 80% of those fines were less than $50. Fines included 20 cents a day for a book to $1 a day for a DVD that was late.

Although library patrons will no longer receive a daily fine on late items, they will still be charged a fee if an item is lost or damaged.

“At the end of the day, our need is to get our stuff back,” Reeder said.

Libraries will first send out three overdue notices before mailing a bill after 31 days.   

Any account with fines or fees of $10 or more will lose borrowing and computer-use privileges.

Any account that has a total over $50 and over 60 days will be referred to a collections agency.

Reeder said officials have been talking about removing late fines for some time.

“We are not the first in the country to do this,” he said. “This has been done in other places in the country with great success.”

He provided a list of 52 library systems that have moved to zero late fines. There are many more that have eliminated some fines such as for children, Reeder added.

Libraries that have done away with late fines saw an increase in return rates, according to the district.

Library Journal reported in 2017 that a number of libraries nationwide were either eliminating charges for late returns or creating fine-free cards for certain groups of patrons such as children, teens or active-duty military personnel.

Despite the growing trend, a majority of libraries still relied on fines and fees for revenue, according to the publication.

A journal survey in 2017 of 454 libraries found about 14% of borrowed materials are returned late, with patrons in larger library systems slightly more likely to return items after their due date.