Philly City Council eyes elimination of Free Library fines, debts

The Free Library of Philadelphia (Flickr Commons)

By Michael D’Onofrio

PHILADELPHIA — The Free Library of Philadelphia’s late fees are a “regressive financial penalty” that hit the city’s low-income neighborhoods the hardest, a city legislator says.

Councilwoman Cherelle Parker, a Democrat, said library fines set up barriers to accessing educational resources and services. Even minimal fines drive people away, so she wants them to become a thing of the past.

“How many readers, young readers, families does [the library] lose because people get discouraged when they know they can’t afford to pay those fines?” she asked.

On Thursday, City Council passed a resolution, put forward by Parker, for a council committee to explore eliminating all library fines and debts.  

Library officials are expected to testify at the hearing, which will examine what demographics and neighborhoods are impacted by library fines and debts, among other issues. Parker expected to hold a hearing before City Council’s final session on Dec. 12.

Kaitlyn Foti, a spokeswoman for the library, said in an email that library and city officials have been investigating the logistics of implementing a fine-free system for the past year.

“We have been in conversation with the Managing Director [Brian Abernathy] and Mayor’s Office about these matters, and welcome the conversation with City Council to bring more people to the table discussing this possibility,” Foti said.

If City Council and library officials decide to eliminate fines and fees for some or all of the library’s patrons, Philadelphia would join more than 200 municipalities that have already done so.

Chicago became the largest city in the nation to abolish library late fees and erase patrons’ debts this week, following San Francisco in September.

Fine-free libraries have been around for decades but calls for reform have grown in recent years, says Paul Negron, a spokesman the nonprofit Urban Libraries Council, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.

More major cities have found that small library fines were blocking patrons from low-income households from accessing services, Negron said.

Data from Chicago’s library system found that fines do not affect all communities equally. In Chicago’s South District, home to communities of color and many living in poverty, 1 in 3 library cardholders could not check out books due to fines. That figure dropped to 1 in 6 cardholders in Chicago’s more affluent North District.

Eliminating the fines not only draws people back to libraries but builds goodwill toward a public institution, Negron said.

“Folks use libraries for workforce development, they use it for computer access, they use it for community meetings, and if the barrier to get in the door is a $10 or $15 late fee, that’s going to really leave a bad taste in people’s mouths,” Negron said.

In Philadelphia where the poverty rate hovers around 25%, Negron said eliminating library fines and debts would “re-engage folks who are disenfranchised.”

The Philadelphia Free Library library hauls in approximately $400,000 annually in fines, Parker said. The figure represents 0.87 percent of the library’s $45.7 million budget.

The loss of revenue taken in by fines would not lead to the loss of jobs or library hours, Foti said. The revenue is used to pay for library volunteer programs, outreach programs for children, book and material purchases, and technology needs.

The free library charges a 0.25 cent late fee on everything from books to DVDs for patrons who are teenagers and adults, with a maximum fine of $10. When fines reach $5, patrons cannot check out materials.

The Philadelphia library stopped charging fines to children 12 years old and younger in 2013.

Parker, who represents the 9th District, sidestepped questions about whether City Council would increase the library’s budget to make up lost revenue from the elimination of fines. She suggested the library could find savings by nixing costs associated with collecting fines.

City Council requires buy-in from library officials to eliminate fines.

Any legislation City Council passes on the issue would be non-binding. The library’s board of trustees would ultimately make the decision whether to scrap fines.

But Parker noted council members control the city budget and determine the library’s annual funding.

“We have a budget process, right?” Parker asked. “If council makes a recommendation and it is supported by nine members of council and 12 if we want to shore things up [with a veto-proof majority], we think that the library will pay very close attention to council’s actions.”

Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared. Readers may email him at [email protected].

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